Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (left) debates Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin, hosted by the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce September 28, 2021, in Alexandria, Virginia.
Winchester, Virginia CNN  — 

Virginia Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin wasted no time turning a comment made by his Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, into an attack ad aimed at invigorating base GOP voters and parents.

The moment came during the second and final debate between the two late last month. “I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decision,” McAuliffe said over what should be taught in schools. The former governor later added, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

The comments, after getting considerable pick up within conservative media, quickly became a Youngkin ad and have already become a staple of Youngkin’s pitch in the closing weeks of the race to lead the Commonwealth.

“If you had any doubt – any doubt whatsoever – about Terry McAuliffe’s principles, he laid them bare last week when he said, he said parents do not have a right to be involved in their kid’s education,” Youngkin said earlier this month.

His campaign hopes it will serve as a rallying cry that could harness the recent Republican focus on education issues, ranging from what should be taught in public schools to issues around transgender students. But the ultimate goal is to cut into McAuliffe’s support with swing voters in key areas like the vote-rich Northern Virginia suburbs near Washington, DC.

Some voters – particularly those Republicans who were drawn to Youngkin already – were motivated by Youngkin’s message.

Caitlin Davey, a mother from Frederick County, recently pulled her 8-year-old son, Camden, out of Virginia Public Schools. “I can’t wear a mask,” he said as they waited for Youngkin to speak on Wednesday in Winchester. “That’s part of the reason,” added Davey, who was wearing a T-shirt that labeled the White House “stolen property.” Then she listed other issues: “Critical race theory, same sex transgender issues.”

Using the rights of parents as an umbrella, Youngkin has been able to tuck in a number of other issues conservative activists have weaponized to rile up mostly White parents in suburbs across the country, including mask and vaccine mandates in schools, the role of racial equity education and transgender rights. These fights, especially on masks, have been particularly potent in the Northern Virginia suburbs, where political operatives from Washington have helped foment the anger.

Critical race theory, a concept that’s been around for decades and that seeks to understand and address inequality and racism in the United States, has become a political catalyst for Republicans, with lawmakers in states like Tennessee and Idaho banning it from being taught. Schools boards across the country, including in Virginia, have also been venues for these complaints.

The same is true for the rights of transgender students. Dozens of states have looked to pass laws aimed at curbing the rights of transgender people across the country, including in how they participate in school sports. The issue has been particularly potent in Virginia.

McAuliffe has responded to the attacks by accusing Youngkin of modeling himself after former President Donald Trump, a Republican who lost Virginia by 10 percentage points in 2020.

“I really get sick and tired of people like Glenn Youngkin and Donald Trump. They constantly are dividing people. They’re constantly turning people against one another,” he said in an interview with CNN’s Sara Murray. “And why are we doing this to our students? All we want to do is give them a quality education.”

McAuliffe, whose campaign has looked to make the fight against the coronavirus the focus of his bid, also accused Youngkin of being “desperate,” of using the issue as a “dog whistle” to mobilize some of his voters and obscuring the fact that the Republican’s opposition to mask mandates in schools is “life threatening to children.”

‘He made a mistake and Youngkin’s making him pay’

The focus on issues like critical race theory and what should be taught in schools is a far cry from what initially motivated Youngkin’s campaign. The businessman-turned-politician began his bid by focusing squarely on election integrity, and he has also looked to push a message that casts him as a political outsider who could bring a business perspective to Virginia.

Youngkin, however, clearly sees the issue as a way to knock McAuliffe.

“He not only wants to stand between you and your children. He wants to make government a tool to silence us,” said Youngkin of McAuliffe to a crowd of about one hundred Virginians in Winchester Wednesday evening, mischaracterizing an effort by Attorney General Merrick Garland to address the increasing threat of violence faced by educators and school board members.

Youngkin’s campaign, in response to McAuliffe, also launched an initiative called “Parents Matter,” circulating petitions and distributing fliers at community events to grow the anger at McAuliffe.

Many of the parents in attendance at Youngkin’s event on Wednesday expressed similar views to Davey. They said their children weren’t being taught what they thought mattered and that too many kids were getting participation trophies. Tammy Yoder, whose kids are also private school educated, didn’t like books she saw when she said she researched what was offered in the local school district, defining “what marriage is” and “what families looks like.”

“Our children our suffering,” said Heather Lockridge, a Frederick County parent who also pulled her children, ages ten and eight, out of public school. “They are creating a divide and children don’t know color.”

For Republicans, like Chris Saxman, a former Virginia state legislator and Republican strategist, the latest Youngkin strategy is a winner.

“He made a mistake and Youngkin’s making him pay for it,” Saxman said.

He added: “There’s only so much political advantage you can gain from a particular singular issue. This expands it beyond critical race theory. This brings in everything. It would be political malpractice not to do what Glenn Youngkin is doing.”