The Republican Party is associating Democrats in close 2022 midterm election races with critical race theory, deploying their latest culture war strategy as part of the right’s bid to regain control of the House of Representatives.
The strategy is rooted in what Republican officials believe worked for them in 2020: tying Democrats in swing districts to a hyperemotional and tense local issue, even if it’s not something that Congress has much of a role in. In the last election, it was police funding and Black Lives Matter protests.
After last summer’s widespread protests around policing and race, the far right has built an inaccurate narrative around critical race theory, misappropriating the term to inspire fear among white people by suggesting that their children are being shamed for being white, silenced in the classroom, or indoctrinated with radical teachings. Critical race theory, in reality, acknowledges the country’s long history of racism and resulting inequity as a factor when evaluating policy — but it’s quickly become a catchall term for pushback on diversity efforts.
With that groundwork laid, the party is coalescing around a movement to ban critical race theory in public school curriculum. Tucker Carlson relentlessly hammers this to Fox News viewers, some Republican members of Congress bring it up at unrelated hearings, and parents are being arrested protesting it at board meetings for schools where critical race theory isn’t taught.
Earlier this month, Rep. Haley Stevens, a Democrat from Michigan, was heckled during an intense town hall after she told a crowd that she didn’t believe school curriculums were a congressional issue. The exchange came after she was questioned about her stance on “non-empirical critical race theory” being taught in classrooms.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, the party’s House campaign arm, quickly published the exchange online with the headline, “You’re a Coward!”
And last week, the NRCC linked Democratic Reps. Jahana Hayes of Connecticut, Cindy Axne of Iowa, and Andy Kim of New Jersey to critical race theory.
“Andy Kim is flirting with critical race theory,” read an email blasted to reporters by an NRCC staffer. “Does Kim want Critical Race Theory included as part of the curriculum in New Jersey schools?”
In Axne’s case, the NRCC sent out a similar email pointing out her silence on the topic as state representatives move to ban the concept in schools.
All of the Democrats targeted by the NRCC over the past month represent districts that appear on lists of vulnerable seats up for reelection in 2022. They’re all representative of sparse suburban districts, a key group of voters Republicans are trying to win back, according to CityLab’s index of congressional density.
It’s a familiar playbook, where Republicans hyperpolarize progressive causes then tie Democrats to them. In 2020, Max Rose, a Democrat, lost to Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican from Staten Island, after Republicans pummeled the one-term member of Congress with ads linking him to Black Lives Matters protesters, which didn’t help in a borough that Donald Trump won. Republicans also targeted Rose and Dana Balter, a Democrat who lost to Rep. John Katko in New York’s 24th District, by tying them to calls for ending cash bail.
The Republican campaign committees have been running polls this month as they coalesce around the strategy. Internal surveys conducted by the Republican Governors Association and the National Republican Senate Committee, campaign arms for Republican candidates for governor and the Senate, in early June found that a majority of voters in 26 battleground states had a negative view of statements that conservatives have worked hard to associate with the theory.
The survey found that 63% of voters disagreed with a statement asserting that white Americans were inherently racist because they benefited from “systematic racism and white privilege.” It also found that 68% of voters disagreed that the US was “founded on the practice of slavery and white supremacy that continues to this day.”
But the statements presented to voters in the survey don’t offer an accurate representation of what critical race theory actually is. Legal scholars created the theory in the 1970s as an alternative to legal and public policy analysis that did not consider the historical context of race and the effects of racism as a factor in evaluations of policy.
Citizens for Renewing America, a conservative advocacy group, published a guide that encourages parents to form grassroots groups and coalitions to oppose the theory. The guide pointed to a Texas school district, where parents formed a political action committee to oppose a diversity plan introduced by the school board. The group raised $200,000 to support a slate of races including the mayoral race, two city council seats, and two school board seats. Every candidate supported by the PAC won their race by nearly 40% in the May election.
It’s a strategy that Democrats are familiar with, after the 2020 cycle when the party underperformed in down-ballot races across the country.
An analysis of the party’s challenges during the 2020 election commissioned by Third Way, the Collective PAC, and Latino Victory Fund found that Democrats across the country struggled to respond to Republican attacks centered around defunding the police. The study also identified the attacks as part of a larger effort to paint Democrats as a party of radicals.
The authors of the report wrote that the 2020 election saw increasing amounts of “dog whistle politics and overt racism” that impacted voting decisions across the country.