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Democratic strategists say the party should hit back harder against GOP critical race theory claims.
"On a political level, it's a real threat," one strategist told Insider.
But strategists say they shouldn't lose sight of economic issues as the top priority for voters.
They've called it a "racist dog whistle" and a "lie."
But those messages haven't helped Democrats tamp down the uproar Republicans are fueling over "critical race theory," now a misused catch-all term for teaching on race and diversity in K-12 schools that's firing up protests at school board meetings around the country.
In Virginia, Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin exploited the term and pledged to "ban" it in classrooms on his first day as governor, even though critical race theory — an academic approach to examining racial bias — is most often taught in law schools. Republicans plan to lean into the issue in the 2022 election cycle.
Democratic strategists say the party should hit back harder against "divisive" GOP claims while not losing sight of the priority for voters; the economy.
"On a political level it's a real threat that is allowing Republicans to claw back the inroads that Democrats have made in the suburbs over the last couple of election cycles," said Jim Manley, a longtime aide to former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.
Democrats haven't yet pushed back on this issue enough, but the "good news" is the party's response is effective and there's time to make the case before the 2022 elections, said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist. They just need to make the case "relentlessly," he said.
"Voters run from the Republicans when Democrats peel back the onion on what these claims really mean," he said. "It's not just that Republicans want a bigger role for parents in education, it's that Republicans are willing to let white supremacists write curricula."
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the House campaign arm for Democrats, downplayed the threat to the party in congressional races. This fall, they tested responses to false claims about critical race theory in K-12 schools. The messages they say resonate most with battleground voters: Democrats want to teach the truth about US history and honor those who fought to make the country better, Republicans are trying to divide Americans and Democrats want to deliver for American families.
Democrats' message to voters in 2022 will be more compelling than "Republicans' divisive lies," said Chris Taylor, a DCCC spokesman.
'Kind of like putting your head in the sand'
"House Democrats safely reopened schools, delivered tax relief in the Child Tax Credit, and we're fighting for universal pre-K and paid family leave," he said in a statement to Insider. "Republicans stand in opposition to American families. Our bet heading into 2022 is that voters will choose progress over division."
The message tracks with a new Washington Post-ABC News poll that found most Americans overall said public schools should teach "a good amount" or more about how the history of racism affects the US today. While most Democrats and independents said schools should teach about the effects of racism, just about 4 in 10 Republicans agreed.
But Manley said the results in Virginia's recent gubernatorial race show that Republicans used critical race theory as a wedge issue to raise broader concerns among suburban voters. To suggest it's just an issue for the GOP base is "kind of like putting your head in the sand," he said.
"We need to figure out how to address this phenomenon without overplaying our hand and or allowing Republicans to, you know, break the education system in this country," Manley said.
A Fox News Voter Analysis survey found 25 percent of Virginia voters polled cited the critical race theory debate as the most important factor in their support for a gubernatorial candidate, and most of those voters went for Youngkin over Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
DCCC chair, Rep. Sean Maloney of New York, told The Washington Post that Democrats have "learned from the lies and distortions of the last election." Democrats will argue that "children need to learn their history — all of it — without censorship or politics limiting what they can learn," Maloney told columnist Greg Sargent.
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said Democrats are on "strong terrain" when they talk about "teaching the truth" about racism in history and they should be more aggressive in their responses.
"Voters are wildly, wildly in favor of it and even half of Republicans think some of this stuff should be taught," she said. "Their strategy is, mobilize their base and distract us, and shame on us if we get distracted."
That's not to say there aren't lessons to be learned from Virginia. Lake said the bigger problem for McAuliffe wasn't about critical race theory, but his "problematic" statement during a debate that parents shouldn't be "telling schools what they should teach." Now, House Republicans are calling for a "parents bill of rights" in education.
Not enough to say Republicans are lying
Democrats need a better answer about parental involvement, Lake added, and the "irony" is that more Democrats are parents than Republicans. "We ought to be very comfortable with this," she said.
The real issue for voters is whether a candidate is on the side of parents and students or not, Ferguson said. And Democrats have a strong case to make about providing money for schools and blocking "censorship," but they need to lean into it.
"When Democrats talk about how Republican plans would put politicians in charge of classrooms and censor teachers, the swing voters who Republican voters thought they were winning quickly flee," he said.
It's not enough to say that Republicans are lying about critical race theory being taught in classrooms when right-wing media is driving the issue and parents are also hearing about it from other parents at their schools, Ferguson said.
"It can't be dismissed as just a lie," he said. "It needs to be defeated as a way to put politicians in charge of the classroom and white supremacists in charge of the curriculum."
"Culture wars" will be a problem in 2022 races, and "Democrats are always on defense," said former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, a progressive leader. Democrats shouldn't run from the conversation about critical race theory, but they need to quickly pivot to real economic challenges people are facing in their everyday lives.
"If the Democrats would focus most of their time delivering on the promises that they made in 2020, then people couldn't get distracted with all this other nonsense that the Republicans are throwing out there," she said.
Lake said the critical issue for Democrats is the economy and not education.
"I don't minimize the amount that the Republicans are doing to try to energize their base with this issue," Lake said. "But this is not a threat to us. The economy is the much bigger threat than critical race theory."
Insider would like to know how your school district is handling the critical race theory controversy. Please contact Nicole Gaudiano at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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