Veteran GOP strategist Liesl Hickey has dubbed 2022 the year of the angry K-12 parent.
"They are mad," says Hickey, co-founder of the center-right group N2 America, "and they want to hold someone accountable."
Hickey, a former Executive Director of the NRCC, isn't a political bystander on this issue. For the last year, N2 America and the State Government Leadership Foundation launched a joint campaign "in response to the refusal of union-controlled politicians to follow the recommendations of scientific experts who said it was safe to reopen America's schools."
In the course of this work, Hickey has seen qualitative and quantitative data to back up her claim that parents, especially those living in suburban areas, are fed up with how their kids have been treated by state, local and national politicians. They feel as if their kids have been forced to "shoulder the pandemic" even as adults have been able to enjoy dining out, attend sporting events, and essentially going back to living their normal lives.
Their most recent ad takes direct aim at what she argues is the 'hypocrisy' among elected officials that has "driven them [parents] to the brink."
Democratic Governors, sensing and hearing that same sentiment in their states, have begun to lift masking requirements for schools in New Jersey, Connecticut and Oregon. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, chairman of the DCCC, took to Twitter to announce that he "fully support[s] decision to roll back mask mandates."
Recent polling suggests that Americans are much less worried about kids getting sick at school and more concerned that kids are falling behind without consistent in-person schooling. A January NBC poll found a significant majority (65 percent) of adults were more concerned about children not going to school in person than were concerned about in-person school potentially "resulting in more spreading of COVID." Among adults most likely to have school-aged kids (those between the ages of 35-49), a whopping 70 percent were most worried about kids not being in school.
A survey of battleground state parents (AZ, CO, FL, GA, MI, MN, NV, NH, NC, PA, TX, WA, and WI), taken by the GOP firm Cygnal in partnership with the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) found similar results. Just 38 percent of parents agreed that "even though some students will fall behind, we must keep schools closed and use virtual learning until COVID is under control." In comparison, a majority (54 percent) agreed that "if at all possible, schools should be open because too many students are falling behind."
It's important to note that these questions don’t specifically address masking. And the president has made it clear that he does not want to see schools shut down again. But, given actions taken by Democratic lawmakers this week, it seems clear that they too saw masking as a stand-in for other unpopular mitigation efforts like hybrid schooling and restrictions on after-school or extra-curricular activities. Kids wearing masks helps to remind voters that things are still not "back to normal," something that Democrats and President Biden had insisted would occur under their watch.
Even so, polls show that Democratic voters remain divided over the risk in having children participating in in-person school. In the NBC survey, Democrats, by a 51 percent to 43 percent margin were more concerned about the risk of COVID spreading in a school environment than they were about kids falling behind. Voters of color were also more divided with 42 percent concerned about the health risk of in-person school and 51 percent more worried about kids falling behind. Meanwhile, Republicans are united (87 percent) in believing that kids being out of school is riskier.
The Cygnal/RSLC survey showed a similar partisan and racial divide. For example, among Latino parents, 59 percent wanted schools to use virtual learning until COVID was under control. In other words, the angry parents are more likely to be white.
This is all coming at a time when opinions of President Biden's handling of the pandemic and the government agencies the White House relies on for COVID guidance are at an all-time low. This week, a Pew survey found that only 50 percent of Americans think public health officials are doing a good job responding to COVID — a 29 point drop since March of 2020. For Biden, just 40 percent think he's doing a good job with COVID, a 14 point drop since March of 2021.
Even so, public support/opposition to COVID mitigation measures has ebbed and flowed with the perceived seriousness of the virus. For example, during the Delta surge of late summer/early fall 2021, a Monmouth poll found 63 percent supporting "instituting or re-instituting" face mask guidelines. By this January, support had dropped 10 points to 53 percent. In September, 53 percent supported having to show proof of vaccination to enter a workplace. By January, support had fallen to 43 percent. In June of 2021, as vaccinations were being distributed and optimism about the end to the pandemic was rising, 89 percent of Americans in a Gallup poll thought the COVID situation was getting better. By September, as the Delta surge was taking hold, that optimism dropped precipitously, with just 20 percent believing the pandemic situation was getting better and 54 percent saying they thought it was getting worse.
We saw these swings play out in real-time during the 2021 Virginia Governor's race between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin.
In early September of 2021, with the Delta variant in full swing and worries about the risk to children at elevated levels, Youngkin's refusal to support vaccine mandates for teachers and health care workers looked risky.
For example, a Washington Post-Schar poll taken in early September last year found 67 percent of Virginians supported requiring teachers and school staff to be vaccinated, and 69 percent supported a requirement that students, teachers and staff were masked in school.
A VCU poll during that same time period found similar results, with 71 percent of Virginians supporting a K-12 requirement to wear masks.
Yet, not only did Youngkin win the election a few weeks later, but just this week nearly half the Democratic delegation in the Virginia state senate voted to support legislation that allows parents to opt their children out of school mask mandates, "just as Youngkin declared in an executive order signed on his first day in office."
Youngkin's support of voluntary — not mandated — vaccination could have been a significant liability if the governor's race had taken place in September instead of November. But, by November, with Delta waning and McAuliffe's own gaffe about parental involvement in education taking center stage, Youngkin's vaccine position was no longer as significant a liability.
The timing was a key factor in the 2021 California gubernatorial recall as well. In the fall of 2020, with the pandemic in full swing, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom was photographed enjoying an unmasked dinner party at a tony Napa Valley restaurant at the same time the state was under strict COVID protocols. The reaction to his brazen hypocrisy helped to give a needed boost to the effort to recall him from office. Yet, by the time of the recall election nine months later, the Delta surge was in full swing and his GOP opponent's opposition to vaccine and masking mandates allowed Newsom to shift the race away from his own behavior and recast the race between himself and his vaccine and mask skeptical opponent as a "life or death" choice.
So, what happens if a new variant emerges this fall, especially if that variant is perceived as riskier to younger children? Will Democrats be able to go on the offense? Or, has the credibility of the administration and government agencies to deal with the pandemic been irreparably damaged? Even as concerns about risks of COVID have ebbed and flowed, opinions about Biden's ability to handle COVID have steadily ticked down since last July.
Hickey (not surprisingly) is skeptical of Democrats being able to regain voter trust. She argues that parents "feel like Democrats are beholden to the radical left and the teacher's unions." But, polling done for the progressive Navigator project shows while Biden's approval ratings on handling the pandemic may have slipped, "Americans also trust the president and Democrats to combat the coronavirus pandemic (49 percent) by a 14-point margin over the Republican Party (35 percent)."
In other words, Democrats hope that if the election is a choice between who you'd rather have in charge of dealing with the pandemic, Republicans still come up short. But, it is hard to turn a midterm election from a referendum on the president into a 'choice' election between one party and the other. For much of 2021, Democrats enjoyed public support for their work on the pandemic, in part because of how poorly most Americans thought Trump did managing it. Today, however, it's Democrats who have the burden of proving they are getting the job done.
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