Election results: Terry McAuliffe, Virginia Democrats triggered their own defeat

After Terry McAuliffe’s stunning defeat by challenger Glenn Youngkin in Virginia’s gubernatorial race, conservative journalist Matt Walsh tweeted, in part: “I want to thank the Loudoun County school board. None of this would have been possible without you.”

He was right. Virginia Democrats weren’t so much defeated as self-destructive, and much of the destruction was caused by school boards.

Loudoun County in Northern Virginia has been the scene of many political fights over curriculum and gender policies. After parents showed up at meetings to criticize the influences of critical race theory, some teachers and school board officials organized online campaigns to discuss harassing them and even hacking them. (One school board member, Beth Barts, has resigned, and a special prosecutor is investigating her ongoing removal case.)

Then the school board knew about – and covered up – the sexual assault of a female student in a girls’ room by a now-convicted, gender-fluid assailant, likely because it was afraid that would bring its expansive transgender policy into disrepute.

When the father of the victim grew angry at a school board meeting, members had him manhandled, arrested and then cited as evidence by the National School Boards Association, in a now-retracted letter, that angry parents were some sort of domestic-terrorism threat. This claim was amplified by Attorney General Merrick Garland.

Terry McAuliffe, shown here with President Joe Biden at a campaign rally last month, lost the Virginia governor's race to Republican Glenn Youngkin.

Normally, what happens in local school boards stays in local school boards. America’s public education tradition has been one of decentralized public education, with systems accountable to parents via locally elected school boards. But what happens when the school boards try to write parents out of the equation?

Virginia happens.

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While parents are children's primary educators and should have the greatest influence over kids’ education, Democrats’ activist base seems to think that kids should belong to the state, not their parents. When McAuliffe said during a debate, "I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach," it confirmed a lot of people’s worst fears.

Had McAuliffe done the sensible thing and said that of course parents have a right to express an opinion on their kids’ education, the story would have died. But he said the opposite. Had Garland declined to take a public position on angry parents in local meetings, the story would have gotten far less attention.

But neither one could help himself. The Democrats have allowed their party’s messaging, and its signature policy moves, to be controlled by their activist fringes.

Traditionally, a party with a razor-thin majority would move cautiously, focusing on middle-of-the-road projects that a bipartisan majority supports. But the Democrats depend heavily on teachers’ unions – and public school teachers.

Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe speaks at a campaign rally in Richmond, Va., on Oct. 23, 2021.

It’s not just school boards, of course. The governance of blue cities has been bad enough to be a national drag on the Democratic Party. Bill de Blasio’s awful mayoralty turned New York City from a crown jewel into a dump; Seattle and Portland are national disgraces with their lawlessness; and Midwestern cities like Minneapolis and Chicago have suffered under the influence of trendy but awful depolicing policies or rhetoric.

In many of these places, we’re already seeing an impact. Minneapolis voters rejected a police department-abolishing measure. The voters of Seattle (!) elected a law-and-order Republican city attorney. And the governor’s race in deep blue New Jersey, which should have been a layup for the incumbent, was unexpectedly close. (The Democrat won.) People want to live in clean, safe and orderly communities, and they don’t want to be the unwilling targets of poorly thought out social experiments.

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But the schools stuff hits the hardest, because it attacks people’s kids. And in the end, it may not just be Virginia Democrats who self-destructed but the public schools themselves. New York City’s public schools are hemorrhaging students – losing 64,000 students since the 2019-20 school year – as parents move their kids to charter schools, private schools, home-schooling or out of the city altogether. And you can see similar trends around the nation.

Of course, some experts suggest (including McAuliffe himself) that the former Democratic governor was dragged down by President Joe Biden’s plummeting popularity. But it’s also the case that Biden’s out-of-touch ineffectuality looks worse against a background of lousy government at the local level.

The solution for Democrats is easy: Take a moderate, sensible approach that reflects what most voters want. Do that, and you’ll win all the elections you need. But can Democrats do that in the face of their internal pressures? I’m not holding my breath.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor and the author of "The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself," is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: National election takeaways: Democrats, just be moderate, reasonable