If the issue of school-reopening lingers as a sore subject with Arlington parents and the broader community headed into the November elections, could it be a political winner for local Republicans?
The rank and file among county Republicans stands virtually united in their position, as a recent survey of members conducted by the Arlington County Republican Committee found a whopping 94.9 percent of respondents favored getting students back in school, safely, now. Only 1.7 percent were against the idea; 3.4 percent were unsure.
Republicans leaders for more than a month have seen an opening to connect with Arlington’s Democratic-heavy electorate.
“It’s really bipartisan,” Arlington GOP communications director Matthew Hurtt said of the desire to give parents the option of getting students back in class full-time.
Online learning – derided at the monthly GOP meeting as “Zoom school” – is “really not working,” said Hurtt.
Starting with gubernatorial candidate Pete Snyder and then picked up by other GOP aspirants for statewide office, Republicans have pressed the view that students and families are being held hostage by teacher unions and the Democratic-led school boards beholden to them. Republicans also have rapped Gov. Northam for being wishy-washy on the issue.
Democrats privately acknowledge that the issue could cause them heartburn among all-important suburban voters in November, when the three statewide offices and all 100 House of Delegates seats are on the ballot. Most plugged-in Democrats believe, however, the issue will be in the rear-view mirror when voting time arrives.
But not if Republicans can keep the matter alive.
“There are plenty of disaffected Democrats,” Hurtt said, suggesting the possibility of “a path forward for Republican victory.”
At the local level, where schools have been shuttered for nearly a year (with the reopening plan still a fluid work in progress), Republicans see a chance to pick up the School Board seat of chairman Monique O’Grady, who appears to be tossing in the towel after a single four-year term.
Even though school board seats in Virginia officially are nonpartisan, all five in Arlington currently are occupied by those who first won a Democratic endorsement caucus prior to general-election victories. It has been more than a dozen years since a non-Democrat (David Foster) served on the School Board.
The Arlington GOP’s Feb. 24 meeting included participation from Russell Laird, the parent of an 8-year-old daughter who, in what likely is a longshot effort, is suing the county school system to force a return to classes. His legal rationale: The Virginia constitution mandates a quality education, and students aren’t getting it online.
“It’s ridiculous,” Laird said of online learning. “It’s been documented how much damage has been done.”
Of course, without a candidate, there is no chance of victory at the polls. At the Feb. 24 Republican meeting, Loposser put out a call for candidates willing to “take it seriously” while running for the School Board seat, the County Board seat occupied by Democrat Takis Karantonis – who is seeking re-election – and House of Delegates seats.
While winning delegate seats or the County Board post are probably out of reach for the GOP, School Board might not necessarily be a pipe dream for a well-funded challenge. Republicans need to find a candidate who can “run up the middle,” Hurtt said.
For the second month in a row, county Republicans saw an influx of new members in February, apparently from those angered by the results of the 2020 presidential election and the leftward tilt of local, state and federal politics.
“We’re seeing the momentum growing,” party chair Andrew Loposser said. “It’s encouraging, to say the least.”
(Arlington Democrats saw a similar boost in the months following the 2016 election victory of Donald Trump, an event that Democratic leaders acknowledged shook the party out of a period of complacency. The party two years later won back the lone elected office in Arlington that was held by a non-Democrat, ousting independent John Vihstadt from the County Board.)
The non-scientific GOP member survey, now in its fourth year, drew more than 170 responses. While most who responded continue to say their key interest is at the national level, an increase in the number of local Republicans expressing eagerness to get engaged in state and local politics was pleasing to party leaders.
“I’ve been encouraged by seeing the interest in state and local politics grow,” Loposser said.
Having the survey results “really helps . . . guide us in the right direction,” he said.
“We got some valuable feedback,” Loposser said.