ASHLAND, Va. — Glenn Youngkin wants voters in Virginia to hear an urgent message: Your children are in danger.
In a speech in Northern Virginia’s suburbs last week, the Republican candidate for governor highlighted the murky case of a student who allegedly committed sex crimes in two area schools. He said the incidents, which have sparked community outrage, are the result of failed Democratic leadership.
“What other tragedy awaits Virginia’s children?” Youngkin asked from the podium, flanked by a collection of parents and schoolchildren.
On the eve of the Nov. 2 election, Youngkin’s message represents a new front in his monthslong push to repair the Republican Party’s standing in the suburbs, where college-educated moms and dads turned against Donald Trump’s GOP.
Shying away from Trump and his divisive rhetoric for much of the year, Youngkin has adopted a suburban strategy that instead emphasizes an approachable image and “kitchen table” issues like taxes, public safety and education. He’s also tried to link his education platform to the frustrations of Virginia activist groups already upset by school coronavirus pandemic restrictions and transgender policies, as well as classroom curricula they see as too liberal and un-American.
Youngkin’s final-days focus on sexual predators in schools will test the limits of his suburban outreach and provide lessons for Republicans aiming to retake control of Congress next year.
Less than two weeks before Election Day in Virginia, there are signs that Youngkin’s strategy is working.
Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s campaign privately concedes the race is a toss-up, despite built-in advantages in a state President Joe Biden carried by 10 percentage points last fall. New polling from Monmouth University, which has the race tied, suggested that Youngkin may be gaining some support among those deciding between the two candidates in the final months of the campaign, including in the Northern Virginia suburbs.
Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute, also cited a shift in voters’ top issues away from the pandemic, which tends to favor Democrats, and toward the economy and education.
A pair of recent cases of alleged high school sexual assault have allowed Youngkin to connect his education platform to the prospect of violence in schools.
The first occurred in a restroom at Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn, in Northern Virginia’s Loudoun County, on May 28. The father of the victim was arrested during a school board meeting the following month, as officials were discussing transgender school bathroom policies, after an altercation with another parent. On Oct. 6, a separate incident occurred at Broad Run High School, about 3 miles from Stone Bridge.
The Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement that a 14-year-old male was arrested in connection with the May 28 assault and charged with two counts of forcible sodomy. Police have since announced that the same suspect has been charged with sexual battery and abduction of a fellow student in the Oct. 6 incident.
In response to outrage from parents that the same student allegedly was allowed to commit two assaults in different schools, Loudoun County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Ziegler apologized last week and said school officials will review disciplinary procedures.
“It’s less about ideology. Now we’re talking about a parent’s role as it influences the safety of their child,” said Alleigh Marré, a Virginia mother who leads an organization called Free to Learn Coalition. “I think most parents, when they look at what occurred in Loudoun, they see a father who was sticking up for his daughter who was a survivor of sexual assault and yet the repercussions came back to the dad.”
On the ground in northern Virginia, Briana Howard, a 32-year-old mom of a second grader in Fairfax County schools, said her family struggled during last year’s classroom closures. She supported them initially, but felt they went on for far too long.
Howard said she typically votes for Democrats and voted for Biden last year but is supporting Youngkin because of his stance on education and her frustration with Democrats, who she feels have catered to teachers unions instead of families.
She attended one of Youngkin’s recent rallies and described being “very moved” to hear that he was taking the alleged sexual assaults seriously and demanding an investigation.
“He was very passionate about what he said and just really made me feel like he’s going to listen to parents and he’s going to listen to our voices,” she said. “And he’s going to not just listen to us but change what is happening.”