Is this the year of the angry parent? The GOP hopes so.

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Republicans want the midterm elections this fall to be the year of the angry parent, and they believe they can channel that frustration against Democrats and use it to retake control of Congress.

Their hopes rest on a very specific kind of parent: those in the suburbs who are upset with pandemic mitigation efforts that Democrats have championed, in particular masking requirements for young students.

Suburbanites helped Republicans win back the Virginia governorship last fall, and suburbanites are also the voting bloc that made the big difference in President Biden’s win over former President Donald Trump in 2020.

During the Trump era, many suburban counties moved firmly into the Democratic camp. Now Republicans hope they're drifting back to the GOP.

Joe Biden, with his wife, Dr. Jill Biden at his side, holds up his right hand as he is sworn in as U.S. president.  as  looks on.
Joe Biden is sworn in as president on Jan. 20, 2021, as his wife, Jill, looks on. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

When it comes to schools and frustration over how Democrats have handled the COVID-19 pandemic, white voters and Hispanics tend to be far more upset than Black and Asian voters, according to polling data.

Liesl Hickey, a Republican consultant, said Democrats made the mistake over the past few years of thinking they had won over suburban voters for good.

“They were renting them. They never owned them,” Hickey told Yahoo News. “Suburban voters have always been center-right. The last couple of cycles, they were voting on personality. When they voted on policy, they voted center-right.”

In some ways it’s odd that parents are still angry about COVID restrictions. School closures are a thing of the past almost everywhere. Vaccine mandates and mask mandates are on their way out. And in fact, most Republican-leaning areas got rid of mask mandates long ago, if they ever had them.

But Republicans say parents are still upset and want to punish Democrats and their allies in the teachers’ unions. The GOP is also looking to stoke that anger, portraying the Democrats as hypocrites who go unmasked while insisting that young children, who were always at low risk of serious COVID complications, stay masked up in schools.

“This has never been about medical science, it has always been about POLITICAL science,” tweeted Dee Duncan, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee. His organization paid for a TV ad produced by Hickey’s firm that calls on Democrats to “give kids their childhood back.”

Shelly Slebrch, holding placards saying: I can not and will not be silenced and We the parents stand up!
Parents and community members protest after a Loudoun County, Va., school board meeting in June of last year was halted because the crowd refused to quiet down. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

Substantively, much of this amounts to getting rid of mask mandates, which are already gone in much of the country.

But the appeals to parental anger are wrapped into a larger sense of frustration that many Americans feel over a host of issues: rising inflation and higher costs of living, a spike in crime rates, the fact that COVID has persisted for almost two years, ongoing political polarization and divisiveness.

Many Americans want to move on and stop living in a defensive crouch toward COVID, and they want Democrats to stop nagging people about masks and vaccines.

This is part of the Democrats' bigger identity problem. They are seen by many as more interested in judging people for thinking or saying the wrong thing than they are in helping people.

“People think we’re more focused on social issues than the economy — and the economy is the No. 1 issue right now,” Democratic pollster Brian Stryker told the New York Times after the Virginia election last year.

Democrats need to “give voters comfort that you get what their frustrations are,” Michael Steele, the former Republican lieutenant governor of Maryland, said in an interview. “Just stop judging them.”

Indeed, even the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has concluded that many voters find their party “preachy” and “judgmental,” according to polling and focus groups.

Again, large swaths of red America have felt this way for quite some time. What makes this moment different is that Democrats are seeing these attitudes creep into portions of the electorate where they have historically had support.

A supporter in a baseball cap waves flags in support of Trump.
A supporter at a 2018 rally in Chattanooga, Tenn., where then-President Donald Trump offered support for GOP Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

If Democrats in San Francisco, for example, are fed up with their school board for getting rid of merit scholarships and renaming schools while students languished in remote learning, it suggests that frustration with the general drift of progressive politics is eating into the Democratic base.

A similar exhaustion with liberal cultural priorities appears pervasive among suburban voters who were crucial to Democratic wins in 2018 and 2020.

Virginia is one recent test case. Suburban voters lifted Democrats to power in 2017 and 2019 — giving them the governorship and control of the state Legislature — and then they put Republicans back into the governor’s mansion in 2021.

In 2017, these suburban voters registered their disapproval of Trump. But by 2021 they were turned off by the attempts by Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate, to tie the Republican, Glenn Youngkin, to Trump. Youngkin is now governor.

Youngkin, for his part, made schools and parents central to his message over the final weeks of the campaign. Much of his message concerned how the United States’ fraught racial history is taught in schools, specifically in the form of critical race theory. He also talked about merit-based scholarships, higher standards and funding for education. And he capitalized on outrage around a pair of sex assault cases in Loudoun County.

But underlying all this was frustration over the pandemic.

“During the school closures, parents were asked to oversee their children’s education in a way they never had before — and they did. They are digging in, paying very close attention to what is happening,” Hickey said. “And when parents felt like the schools weren’t even getting the basics right, parents rightly became very frustrated.”

Republican strategist Liesl Hickey, sitting next to a microphone, prepares to record an episode of her podcast.
Republican strategist Liesl Hickey at a recording of her podcast "House Talk With Ali and Liesl" in 2018. (Thomas McKinless/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images).

Many suburban voters “felt buffeted by changing and inconsistent policies and concerned about the impact on student learning loss, and there was a sense among some that Virginia was not following the science by keeping schools closed later than other states,” Stryker, the Democratic pollster, wrote in a memo after the election.

But another Democratic pollster, Pete Brodnitz, told Yahoo News that the conventional wisdom around the Virginia election has been a little too focused on the northern Virginia suburbs surrounding Washington, and not enough on the Virginia Beach and Norfolk area. That region has plenty of suburban voters too, but also has a heavy military presence and more working-class voters.

The vote totals from 2017 and 2021 indicate that Brodnitz has a point. Youngkin got more of a boost in southeastern areas of the state, like Virginia Beach and Norfolk, than he did in northern Virginia in terms of raw votes. In a race where he beat McAuliffe by just over 63,000 votes, Youngkin won only about 14,000 more votes in the four big northern Virginia counties than the GOP nominee did in 2017.

It was along Virginia’s southeastern coast where Youngkin truly cleaned up, winning 34,000 more votes than the previous Republican nominee. So that area contributed twice as much to his victory than did northern Virginia.

Youngkin made rising crime and foreign policy part of his pitch in the Virginia Beach area. So it wasn’t all education and COVID there, though one Republican exit poll did show that education was the top issue to 25 percent of voters there, the highest number for any issue, according to Brent Buchanan of Cygnal, the firm that conducted the survey.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia addresses members of the media.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia after his swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 15. (Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The takeaway for Democrats is that moving on from mask mandates, as many already are, is just the bare minimum they need to do. The party controls both Congress and the White House, meaning that it’s difficult for them to blame Republicans for the hard times that have befallen millions of Americans.

“Poll after poll tells you people are primarily concerned about economic issues and inflation,” Brodnitz told Yahoo News. Both parties are now floating short-term ideas to stem the effects of inflation, such as a suspension of gas taxes and other forms of relief. But economists generally argue that bringing inflation under control will take much more than that.

Brodnitz suggested a focus on education, and on helping young people get subsidized or free community college, as one way to fight back against the GOP. Democrats could also communicate plans to help students make up for the impact of learning that was lost during the pandemic.

Some Democrats are also going out of their way to present a more empathetic face to voters and to parents of students in particular.

“I believe parents should be integrally involved in their kids’ education. I believe that parents play a critical role in their kids’ education and need to reinforce what’s learned in the classroom,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who is running for governor this fall, said recently.

That’s almost an exact reverse engineering of the quote that helped sink McAuliffe’s candidacy in Virginia, when he said during a debate: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

The first instinct of Democrats was to protest that McAuliffe’s comment was taken out of context and that there was an entirely rational and reasonable explanation for what he intended to convey. That response was correct and at the same time missed the point.

Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, speaks at a podium in front of the state shield.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe at his election night rally on Nov. 2 of last year. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

McAuliffe’s comment — and the way it lodged in voters’ minds — exposed a deeper issue about how people saw him and his party. In context, one Democratic operative said, the comment caught fire because it was a spark thrown into a tinderbox that had been filling up with dry wood for some time. It crystallized a feeling among a number of parents that their involvement in school matters was not welcome.

“I think there is a bigger issue of transparency, and parents want transparency. And now parents see Democrats and unions as standing in the way of transparency,” Hickey said.

This impression is buttressed by the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic. Because of pandemic protocol restrictions, Hickey said she has yet to enter the building where her daughter has attended elementary school for the past two years. “I haven't been in my daughter's school, ever,” she said.

Some Democrats, particularly those who are up for competitive elections this fall, are catching on to the reality that their party’s brand has become toxic to a wide swath of the electorate.

The fact that other Democrats still don’t understand how profoundly vulnerable their party has become, on a host of issues, helps to explain why many observers see Republicans primed for a big win this fall across the country.