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Can Democrats Convince Struggling Parents That the Party Hasn’t Abandoned Them?

Families with school-age kids have borne the brunt of the pandemic. Will they make themselves heard at the ballot box?

Senator Sherrod Brown leads a group of Democrats campaigning to renew the expanded child tax credit.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Senator Sherrod Brown leads a group of Democrats campaigning to renew the expanded child tax credit, as families struggle to cope with the Covid pandemic and the rising costs of household goods.

Regardless of where you land on the political spectrum, everyone can agree that parents have had a particularly difficult few years. Many parents of school-age children, and particularly mothers, had to leave their jobs to take care of children unable to attend school. Children have struggled with virtual learning, as well as the mental health and educational effects of not being able to sit in a classroom. Families have had to sort through an ever-shifting welter of pandemic guidance, adjusting on the fly to changing circumstances, as well as a lack of consistency: Masking requirements differ from district to district, community to community, and state to state.

The chaos and inconsistency has naturally manifested itself in our politics, as well. Children and schools have increasingly become the focal point of several political maelstroms, from school system coronavirus policies to the information being taught in the classroom, virtual or not. As these debates have raged, many parents have lost the cushion provided by an expanded child tax credit that expired at the end of last year, while inflation has reached its highest point in decades.

The party in power typically suffers significant losses in midterm elections, and Democrats are in danger of losing one or both chambers of Congress. Already facing a hostile environment and a myriad of messaging challenges, Democrats may also need to convince the parents of young children that they are the party best equipped to address these overwhelming concerns.

“Parents are increasingly anxious about where we are, they’re increasingly anxious about their economic stability in this moment, they’re very afraid about whether or not their kids are going to be deeply harmed by not having access to adequate education and whether or not we’re doing enough to help them in this moment,” said Keri Rodrigues, the president and co-founder of the National Parents Union, an advocacy group. “I think that we’re at a point of frustration, where we’re seeing that the only way we’re going to be listened to is at the ballot box.”

A recent poll by the National Parents Union highlights the anxiety that parents are feeling. The survey of parents of children attending public school found that 69 percent are worried about whether their children will stay on track in school, 64 percent are worried about their children’s mental health, 63 percent are worried about someone in their family getting the virus, and 62 percent are worried about their children missing important social interactions in school. Perhaps most concerning for Democrats and Biden, 58 percent of parents surveyed awarded him a “C,” “D,” or “F” grade in how he has handled the education response to the pandemic.

But education was not the only important topic for parents polled. Seventy-one percent surveyed in the National Parents Union poll reported receiving the expanded child tax credit, and 83 percent of those who received the credit said that losing it will impact their family’s financial situation. A recent poll by Morning Consult also found that 75 percent of voters who received the child tax credit said the expiration would impact their financial security. Moreover, this poll found a drop in support for Democrats among recipients of the child tax credit between mid-December and early February. In mid-December, 49 percent of voters receiving the child tax credit said they would be more likely to vote for a Democratic candidate, compared to 44 percent in early February.

“I think this is the thing that just has not hit our elected officials. They don’t understand how bad this is actually hurting American families right now, especially when we’re seeing incredible unprecedented amounts of inflation happening at the same time,” Rodrigues said.

Democrats had attempted to extend the expanded credit as part of a much larger social spending bill, using a procedural maneuver to allow them to advance legislation in the Senate with a simple majority, instead of meeting a 60-vote threshold. But uniform opposition from Republicans and at least one Democrat, Senator Joe Manchin, prevented them from passing the Build Back Better Act and, therefore, extending the child tax credit.

Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth, one of the few parents in the Senate with school-age children, said that she believed Democrats “have been leading on this issue for a long time,” but needed to continue focusing on policies like the child tax credit, childcare, and paid family leave. “I think that whatever we can pass, we should. So I wouldn’t want to wait for a big package to move forward. If we can get agreement on any portion of this, we should move forward with those portions, whether it’s a tax credit, or childcare, or some kind of parents’ relief,” Duckworth told The New Republic.

“Senate Democrats are fighting to address working families’ most pressing priorities – lowering costs, putting more money in Americans’ pockets, and cracking down on big corporations that are getting rich by raising prices on consumers,” said David Bergstein, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Voters will hold GOP Senate candidates accountable for opposing these popular policies, and for pushing the interests of the ultra-wealthy at the expense of working Americans.”

Rodrigues, who is a Democrat and a member of the Massachusetts Democratic State Committee, argued that Republicans were capitalizing on the frustration that parents are feeling, in particular with regard to schools. “What we’re not hearing from Democrats, what we’re not seeing, is compassion and understanding about where this fear and this pain and this anxiety is coming from. They’re not even willing to hear us out,” Rodrigues said. “Republicans are at least willing to say to parents, families, ‘I’ll hear you out, I feel your pain.’ And that’s where we get into dangerous territory.”

This framing can be seen in how congressional Republicans discuss mask mandates. In a speech on the Senate floor on Monday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell slammed some Democratic-led states for easing mask requirements for adults while still requiring them in schools. “American families deserve normalcy. They deserve it now. And this side of the aisle—the party of parents—has their backs,” McConnell said.

Republicans also point to the Virginia gubernatorial race, which saw Republican Glenn Youngkin defeat Democrat Terry McAuliffe, as proof that frustrated parents will play a key role in the midterm elections. Youngkin refused to support vaccine and mask mandates, even as polling at the time showed the majority of Virginians supporting mask mandates in K-12 schools. Last week, several Democrats in the Virginia state Senate voted for an amendment to make wearing masks in schools optional.

Youngkin also targeted much of his ire on “critical race theory,” a cause célèbre of the right that has gained traction in Republican-led states. (Recent legislation to ban critical race theory in several states has raised questions about whether children can even be taught about the abject evils of slavery, segregation, and the Holocaust; it has also spurred further attempts to ban certain books related to racism, antisemitism, and sexual identity.) Youngkin hammered McAuliffe in the final weeks of the campaign over the Democrat’s remark that parents should not “be telling schools what they should teach,” further cementing education as a focal point of the race. (However, exit polls showed that Youngkin defeated McAuliffe only narrowly among parents with young children.)

Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who worked with the Biden campaign, argued that Democrats had learned the wrong lessons from McAuliffe’s loss, saying that Democratic candidates should embrace questions of education. “I think Democrats are really nervous about this, when in fact, they should be leaning in on it,” Lake said, arguing that Democrats should voice commitments to investing in education, supporting collaboration between parents and teachers, and wanting to teach the truth about the nation’s history.

Lake also argued that the role parents will play in the midterm elections is “overstated,” although the “narrative” around parents and children is important. “Grandparents are very concerned about their grandchildren. Suburban voters—whether they have kids under 18 or not—are very concerned about how kids are doing, how schools are doing. And I think the Virginia race showed that,” Lake said.

Recent polling suggests that education will play a key role in the upcoming elections, and not just among parents. A CNN poll released this month found that 46 percent of voters said education would be extremely important to their vote this year, with 50 percent of Democratic voters and 42 percent of Republicans calling the issue highly important. But there are crucial party differences: Republicans and Republican-leaning voters were more likely to say curriculum was an issue, while Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters were more likely to focus on school funding. The poll also found that majorities said that parents and educators should have an equally important role in school decisions related to the coronavirus and what subjects are taught.

Ultimately, party identification may be more important than any other factor in determining how someone votes. “The primary thing that will shape people’s voting behavior—as always—is their partisanship,” said Virginia Sapiro, a political science professor at Boston University and an expert on public opinion. Sapiro argued that Democrats would be less concerned with the educational issues that motivate Republican voters, such as teaching about racism in the country’s history, and may not be inclined to punish Democrats for not extending the expanded child tax credit when the majority of them supported it.

“Democrats may blame the Democrats for not pushing hard enough on their policies; they may blame Biden for not ‘passing’ legislation that required a supermajority in the Senate, but they are not going to vote for the Republicans instead because of that. The worst problem for Democrats is … if [Democrats] don’t vote,” Sapiro said.

Some congressional Democrats claimed that they have more of a case to make to parents than Republicans, highlighting the passage of the American Rescue Plan last year, which implemented the expanded child tax credit and included provisions such as an emergency paid leave program and additional funding for schools. “Part of what we need to do is to remind parents of what we’ve done,” Duckworth said. “We have to communicate to parents around the country, but the work’s not done yet.”

Democrats have also been quick to note that the American Rescue Plan was approved along party lines. “It was only Democrats,” said Senator Tim Kaine. “We couldn’t get a Republican to lift their finger to help any of these families. I think we’re going to do more, but I think in terms of going out to families and saying, ‘Hey, the last two years might have been the toughest years in recent American history. Who was there battling, or who was standing in the way?’ I think it’s pretty clear.”

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a vocal advocate for implementing paid parental leave, said that voters would know what Democrats stood for, even if they ultimately could not pass some of their priorities. “None of that agenda has been stopped, and we are still fighting for it. And we aspire to pass these pieces of legislation, where our Republican colleagues don’t even aspire to it,” Gillibrand said.