A week before their party endured deep losses in Virginia, some of the most vulnerable House Democrats privately debated how to respond to pointed GOP attacks on an issue that has been percolating in districts across the country: critical race theory.
With Republicans again embracing the culture wars, a year after successfully attacking Democrats over the defund the police movement in House races nationwide, leaders of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last week presented research and debated how to handle the once-obscure topic that is primarily taught at the university level but has become a focus on the right, according to multiple people familiar with the matter.
And a split emerged between two of the party’s frontline Democrats: Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux of Georgia, who is White, and Lauren Underwood of Illinois, who is Black. Underwood wanted to forcefully counter the GOP’s misinformation head-on, while Bourdeaux was leery about elevating the issue, according to sources familiar with the matter. Rep. Jahana Hayes of Connecticut, another Black woman, sided with Underwood during the meeting.
“We have a rising American electorate that are Black and brown people,” Underwood told CNN when asked about the episode. “We should be able to speak to their issues, their experiences as Americans in this country, without feeling like it’s a liability for other audiences.”
Bourdeaux acknowledged it was “one of many conversations among members from competitive districts about how to engage with our diverse and broad constituencies.”
Their back-and-forth offers a preview of the internal debate to come for Democrats as they come to grips with their losses in Virginia, where educational issues became a lightning rod and Republicans are already signaling they plan to make the “concerns of parents,” a centerpiece of their midterm strategy.
Democratic leaders say the lesson from their poor performance in Virginia, where they were swept in all three statewide races in a state President Joe Biden won by 10 points in 2020, is to pass their sweeping agenda immediately.
But there is also a growing recognition that they need to address issues that resonate on the right as well — especially in swing districts.
“If you don’t manage the message, the message will surely manage you,” Phillips said. “And we’re being subjected to that.”
The term “critical race theory” refers to the academic concept that racism has been systematically ingrained in American society following centuries of slavery. But conservatives have more recently attempted to recast the phrase, claiming it teaches children to think that the United States is racist.
The recent exchange over critical race theory evoked the Democratic party’s struggles in 2020, when they failed in some races to effectively counter Republican attacks that divide the left, including the “defund the police” slogan. In election autopsies, Democrats determined their lack of a coherent and convincing message on the topic was a key reason why they lost seats.
Now, after picking up seats last year, Republicans only need to win a net of five seats to take back the House.
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the New York Democrat who chairs the DCCC, said the exchange between Underwood and Bourdeaux was “completely unremarkable and respectful.”
“It was two members talking about and effectively responding to Republican efforts to use race to divide Americans,” he told CNN. “One of the lessons from 2020 (is) we’re going to respond to Republican lies.”
Still, the episode shows the party has varying viewpoints about its messaging strategy on the issue. Rep. Steven Horsford of Nevada, who represents a frontline district, called the GOP’s tactics “deplorable” and said the only way to counter them is with the “truth.”
“We need more truth. We need more transparency. We need more honest conversations about what’s really the underlying issue,” Horsford told CNN. “About everything from our history, to our circumstances, to systemic issues that create inequities.”
He added: “I don’t believe in ignoring tactics that pit one group of people against another.”
Phillips agreed, saying: “I’m saddened by the fact that we aren’t able to generate a narrative that is more truthful about what’s going on, because critical race theory is not taught in elementary schools or high schools. And it’s time that we start articulating that a little better.”
But some Democrats think it’s not always productive to respond to every Republican talking point, and believe that messaging should be tailored to each person’s district.
“What I try to do is not to get all caught up in what the GOP is saying about me or about my party, but about things that I have identified as being real salient issues in my district,” said Rep. Susan Wild of Pennsylvania, another front-liner.
Republicans including Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin have tried to force Democrats to either defend critical race theory, a non-issue in political races until former President Donald Trump declared it a villain last year, or face a backlash from some on the left.
Aside from critical race theory, Republicans have also campaigned on parents’ frustration over school closures and vaccine and mask mandates. Now, the party is packaging it all under the umbrella of educational issues as part of its blueprint to win back the House next year. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy announced at a news conference on Wednesday that the GOP plans to soon unveil a “Parental Bill of Rights.”
“The one thing you will find is, the Republican Party will be the party of education,” McCarthy said, before predicting Democrats could lose over 60 seats in the midterms.
And some Democrats recognize that they need to focus on education to keep their seats in 2022.
“I got to acknowledge that Glenn Youngkin tapped into, in terms of concerns about education at the local level, he touched a nerve,” said Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat. “Those of us on the Democratic side need to sit back and think about how we address that.”
Asked how they should address that, Warner said that will be “part of the future debate.”
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