Aiming to win back suburban voters, GOP targets Democrats over closed schools

Democrats counter that GOP blocked funds to make classrooms safer

New Jersey Rep. Andy Kim is pushing back after a GOP-aligned group put up billboards saying he was against reopening schools.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
New Jersey Rep. Andy Kim is pushing back after a GOP-aligned group put up billboards saying he was against reopening schools. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 12, 2021 at 3:22pm, Updated at 4:30pm

Republicans, with their sights on the 2022 elections, have seized on the issue of school reopenings in an effort to woo suburban voters who turned against the party during the Trump era.

Pivoting away from impeachment, the QAnon conspiracy theory and the violent Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, the GOP sees championing the cause of returning students to their classrooms as a chief, and salient, messaging point that will endure over the next 20-plus months of the election cycle. Democrats counter that Republicans lack credibility on the issue after their party’s president, Donald Trump, bungled the nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Plus, Democrats say they, too, want kids back in school. And decisions about whether and how schools are open are made mostly at the state and local level. 

Still, as more parents hit a breaking point, and as teachers’ unions signal that school may not return to normal even in the fall, parents across party lines have mobilized to pressure their districts to reopen. And Republicans are seeking to tap into that political energy to win House and Senate seats in 2022.

“This is going to be a huge issue, one of the defining issues when we get to November 2022,” Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, told CQ Roll Call on Friday. “It’s going to be very easy for us to point out that Democrats ignored the science and stood with their special-interest donors instead of with students.” 

Those donors he’s referring to are teachers’ unions, which have lobbied for additional federal funding to prepare schools and teachers to return to classrooms. Some 96 percent of the nearly $1.8 million spent by the National Education Association in the 2020 cycle went to support Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, as did 98 percent of the $2.2 million spent by the American Federation of Teachers. 

Democratic operatives say Republicans shoulder the blame for not getting kids back to school and are using the issue to deflect from matters they don’t want to discuss.

“Washington Republicans are so desperate to paper over their weakness in the face of the QAnon mob’s takeover of their party that they’re flailing while President [Joe] Biden and Democrats work to get schools the funding they need to safely reopen, COVID relief in American’s pockets, and everyday people safely back in their jobs,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Cole Leiter said in an email.

Staying power with voters

Emmer on Friday pointed to emerging evidence that school-age children are suffering from increased mental health problems. The full scope of the consequences of school closures, he said, may become increasingly devastating, even if students return to their classrooms before voters head to the polls for the midterm elections. 

“This is going to have repercussions that go well beyond the next 20 months,” said Emmer, a father of seven whose youngest child is a freshman in college. 

GOP operative Josh Holmes, a former top aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, said that the deeply personal subject matter — people’s children — makes it a long-lasting issue that voters won’t soon forget. 

“I don’t think there’s anything that is more resonant or more mobilizing than the well-being of your children,” Holmes said. “The people hardest hit by this are public school suburban families. These are the same people that Republicans have really had a tough time with the last two cycles.” 

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The American Action Network, a nonprofit group that supports Republicans but does not disclose its donors, launched a new campaign Thursday targeting a dozen Democrats with billboards, digital ads and phone calls, urging them to support students’ return to the classroom. Eleven of those 12 lawmakers are also on the NRCC’s target list of potentially vulnerable Democrats. They include Reps. Josh Harder of California, Chris Pappas of New Hampshire, Andy Kim of New Jersey and Abigail Spanberger and Elaine Luria, both of Virginia.

“Clearly, this is an issue that’s struck a nerve with voters all across the country,” AAN President Dan Conston told CQ Roll Call. “While the House Democrats are focused on these internet conspiracy theories, do you know what people outside the Beltway are concerned about? They’re concerned about getting their kids safely back to school so their lives can return to normal.”

‘This one is personal’

Democrats aren’t letting the hits go unanswered. Kim, for one, sent out a fundraising email Thursday saying AAN was “attacking me with lies.” 

“I usually don’t respond to these low attacks, but this one is personal,” the New Jersey Democrat said in the email. “I’m a father of a boy that I would love to have in-person for kindergarten this year. This dark money super PAC is accusing me of putting politics before our kids? It’s reprehensible.”

Abby Curran Horrell, executive director of the Democratic-aligned House Majority PAC, put the blame for the COVID-19 crisis on Republicans.

“Republicans refused to acknowledge the severity of the COVID crisis for almost a year — allowing for rampant spread of the virus and economic devastation for many,” she said in a statement to CQ Roll Call. “Instead of pitting parents against teachers, Republicans should join Democrats in passing the American Recovery Plan, which includes funding to ensure we can reopen schools safely and as quickly as possible.”

A guide to safe classrooms released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention included a series of recommendations such as requiring masks and keeping windows and doors open when possible. It also recommended improvements to ventilation systems, even though it is unclear from where schools would get funding for such changes.

The CDC roadmap emphasized attention to rates of community spread and noted that just 5 percent of counties have low enough community transmission to justify reopening to all students full-time.

Although schools are notorious focal points for the spread of infectious diseases, COVID-19 is less likely to spread between children. Some outbreaks have occurred, but clusters are generally small, and there are fewer infections in schools doing hybrid learning than in the community, according to studies conducted in North Carolina and Washington state.

But the CDC warned that the number of cases among teachers and staff has been tough to track.

Though the return-to-school issue is largely one playing out locally, including in some of the nation’s biggest suburban school districts, such as Fairfax County, Va., GOP insiders such as Holmes say it might also be a factor in Senate races next year. 

Pennsylvania, for one, will have an open Senate race, and Holmes said the issue could soften suburban Philadelphia voters, who have rejected the GOP in recent cycles. “Any time a political party is wedged between good policy and a loyal constituency, it’s a bad thing for that political party,” hesaid. 

But GOP operatives have more than just the suburbs in mind when focusing on the school reopening issue, said Chris Hartline, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. 

“When we’re talking about not only winning back suburbs, but really expanding the map and trying to compete everywhere, recruit good candidates everywhere, and raise the money, and have the right message everywhere, this is an issue that doesn’t just play in our maybe top target states,” Hartline said. “This is an issue that can play in every state in the country.”

His counterpart at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Stewart Boss, emphasized the COVID-19 relief bill moving through Congress and said Republicans were “continuing to stand in the way of delivering the vital resources our schools need to safely reopen.”

Bridget Bowman and Emily Kopp contributed to this report.