Politics

Republicans Have Finally Found a New Electoral Weapon

What do swing voters think about the school-reopening debate?

An empty classroom is seen, with desks and chairs distanced apart. Plexiglass dividers surround the desks.
Plexiglass dividers surround desks at St. Anthony High School in Long Beach, California, on March 24. Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

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There is the reality of trying to reopen schools—the science, the labor concerns, the exasperated parents—and then there’s the politics. Democrats and the Biden administration realize they will be judged by what happens in the next school year, on whether schools can safely welcome back students or not. Republicans know it too, and they’re trying hard to turn it to their advantage and position schools as an election issue. While polling shows a majority of U.S. adults still say that school reopening should wait until safety is ensured, it also shows parents getting impatient with the process and concerned for their children’s education. On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Atlantic politics writer Edward-Isaac Dovere about how the schools debate could shape some upcoming local elections, and whether they could play to the GOP’s advantage. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Edward-Isaac Dovere: The funny thing for Joe Biden—funny is maybe not the right word for it—is that he’s going to get the credit or blame if the school situation works out or if it doesn’t, even though most of it is beyond his control.

I don’t think you could talk to a parent of a school-age child over the past year and not think that this is one of the most important questions facing them. It’s the kind of thing that motivates parents in a visceral way. And Republicans have landed on this as a wedge issue to say it’s the Democrats who are keeping the schools from being open. They’re hoping they can turn some of those voters who were repelled by Donald Trump but are maybe not so invested in the Democratic Party overall and suspicious of how Dems can be catering to other interests—such as the teachers union, the reliable boogeyman of politics—instead of their interests.

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Lizzie O’Leary: What do we know about what parents want in terms of what public opinion says?

There are polls that show parents are very concerned with safety. They don’t want their kids to get sick. They don’t want the kids to contract the virus and bring it home. There are cases that we hear about a family getting sick because the child was carrying it, even though the child was not manifesting symptoms. So there’s a lot of worry about that. It’s hard to do a national poll on this because, state by state, you’re in different situations. There are parents that have largely been understanding of the restrictions but are growing impatient.

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I was looking at some data from the Pew Research Center that shows Black, Latino, and Asian adults are more likely than white adults to say the risk to teachers and students of getting or spreading COVID should be given a lot of consideration in the reopening debate. I wonder, is the GOP thinking of aiming for a narrow band of white parents, the ones it might be able to move into its camp?

When Republicans talk about suburban voters, they’re not talking about all suburban voters—they’re talking about suburban white voters, usually of a certain education level, that they are hoping that they can swing back. The white, educated, middle-class voter is one of the biggest demographics that dropped off from Republicans and went to Democrats under Donald Trump. A political operative said to me a couple of weeks ago that the big question for 2022 and beyond is whether the Democrats were just renting the suburbs for the last few election cycles or whether they have established a permanent hold on them.

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There are a few elections coming up at the city and state levels that will show whether the Republican strategy of hammering Democrats on schools is working.

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There’s an open race for governor in Virginia. In that race, where there are a lot of suburban parents, there are a lot of voters who would potentially be affected by this question of school reopening. That could be a competitive race. We’ve seen one of the Republican candidates, Pete Snyder, really embrace this open-the-schools message. And in California, we almost certainly will have a recall election for Gov. Gavin Newsom. The school reopening issue has been a big one there, in part because there’s been this fight with the teachers union there of whether teachers would get priority in the vaccination line and whether they would then commit to going back into the classrooms. The other race—and it’s not really as much of a partisan race—is for mayor of New York City. Within the Democratic race, some of the candidates have taken shots at the teachers unions in particular or at Mayor Bill de Blasio for not doing enough to open the schools.

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What’s potentially effective for the Biden administration in terms of policy and messaging power on this issue?

In terms of policy, there is a lot of money in the stimulus package to go out to states for expanding programing and facilities and resources in schools. Theoretically, that will help. But it’s not like the direct checks that are appearing in bank accounts—it’s a little bit more amorphous. Whether voters will realize that that’s what happened there is unclear. Plus, if it seems like the Democrat who’s sitting in the Oval Office is talking about opening schools, that makes it harder for Democratic officials who are anywhere else in the country to not be for opening schools.

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I wonder about how that plays within the Democratic Party, because you don’t want the president of the United States saying or implying that the mayors of some of your biggest cities or the governors of your states are not doing their part. That feels really delicate. But when I think about where we where we are in time, both within the pandemic and within election cycles, why do Republicans see this as a winning issue for themselves now? Is it possible that there’s a relative dearth of any other reliable wedge issue right now because the GOP is in such a strange place post–Donald Trump? What are the data points you’re waiting for?

We’ll know by July at the latest what a lot of the public schools’ plans are going to be for opening and whether you’ll see districts and states making the decision to have kids come back to school. In most of these places, I think you’ll probably see some states do things differently, depending on where one lives in the state. There are hundreds of school districts in New Jersey, where the governor is up for reelection, and not even he has control over what’s going to happen in all parts of the state. In Montclair, which is right outside of New York City, they just can’t figure out a way to get everybody to agree on what to do, so those schools have remained largely closed, whereas other parts of New Jersey have the schools open. And then you see private schools in New Jersey that are open as normal, except with masks and testing as part of the regime. But when they make the policy for what next year is going to be, then you’ll see how much there is to the pressure to reopen. I think we are at this weird stage in the pandemic where it does feel like we’re starting to see the end of it, but we don’t know whether variants are going to sprout up in a complicated way that will lead us to continuing our locked-down lives.

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