The latest back-and-forth in the race to be Virginia's next governor is centered on the value of teaching a Toni Morrison novel in commonwealth schools, highlighting Republican Glenn Youngkin's attempt to make the culture wars around education the major issue of the race as Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe accuses him of using a "racist dog whistle."
Youngkin released an ad on Monday that features Laura Murphy, a Fairfax County mother and conservative activist, who spearheaded a campaign against "Beloved," the 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The campaign began after Murphy claimed it gave her son, a high school senior at the time, nightmares. The ad fits into the Youngkin campaign's broader strategy of seeking to pit McAuliffe against parents.
McAuliffe seized on the issue at his Tuesday night rally with President Joe Biden. "This is his closing message. Glenn Youngkin is promoting banning book by one of America's most prominent Black authors. Just the fact he is even discussing this brings shame here to the commonwealth of Virginia."
The Democrat had earlier responded to the ad by accusing his GOP opponent of trying to "double down on the same divisive culture wars that have fueled his campaign from the very beginning," charging the strategy with being "a racist dog whistle" that looked to "to gin up support from the most extreme elements of his party."
Youngkin, however, has been undeterred, and has continued to use parents' involvement in public education as the centerpiece of his stump speech in the final weeks of the campaign ahead of Tuesday's election.
"My fellow Virginians, this is our moment. Right now," Youngkin told an audience in Henrico on Saturday, adding that "McAuliffe wants government to stand between parents and their children" and that parents across the country are calling and texting him to "stand up for our children too."
"Beloved" is considered a seminal work of American fiction and centers on the story of Sethe, a former slave and a mother who kills her child to spare her from slavery. Morrison, whose work was recognized with a Nobel Prize for Literature among many other awards, writes of the horrors of slavery in "Beloved," including rape and bestiality.
The Youngkin ad has set off the latest back and forth between his campaign and McAuliffe in what is shaping up to be the most closely watched election of the year. Polls have the race as a dead heat and top Democrats, including Biden and former President Barack Obama, have rallied to support McAuliffe.
This back-and-forth began after Youngkin jumped on McAuliffe saying at a debate last month that he was not going to "let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decision" and that he didn't think "parents should be telling schools what they should teach." The comments came during a discussion about the role that parents should have in determining curriculum.
Since the comment, Youngkin has centered his campaign on the rights of parents, hoping to stir up anger at Democrats primarily in the suburbs, where voters fled Republicans in 2020.
Democrats have also gone after Murphy in response to the ad, noting that she is not an unbiased parent and has long given to and advocated for conservative causes.
Murphy began her fight against "Beloved" in 2013. Eventually, the effort reached the Republican-controlled Virginia General Assembly, which passed two iterations of a bill in 2016 and 2017 that would have given parents the right to stop their children from reading certain sexually explicit assignments. The bills were eventually vetoed by McAuliffe.
Murphy's fight has turned her into a Republican activist. She and her husband have donated thousands to conservative campaigns and causes, including Donald Trump's 2020 presidential campaign.
Youngkin's campaign noted that the state bills Murphy advocated for were bipartisan and had the support of some members of Virginia's Legislative Black Caucus.
"The bipartisan bills McAuliffe vetoed would simply have notified parents of sexually explicit reading assignments and given them the choice of having their own child receive an alternative," the Youngkin campaign said in a statement.
On a call on Tuesday, Louise Lucas, the president pro tempore of the Virginia Senate, said she would hope that the Democrats who backed the bills had "learned the lesson over time" and regret backing them now.
Lucas also charged that Youngkin's push wants to "turn us back to a time when the works and the progress of Black people will not be recognized."
"Glenn Youngkin's latest ad only further demonstrate his commitment to Trump's dangerous agenda," Richmond, Virginia, Mayor Levar Stoney said on the call. "Black Virginians know it when they see it and they know it when they hear it. To me, it is a racist dog whistle."
On a competing call on Tuesday, Kay Cole James, former Fairfax County School Board member and president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, disputed the idea that the issue was "racial."
"It shows to me sheer desperation at this point in the campaign to try to paint this that way. Don't take your eye off the ball," she said. "African American parents want to be involved in their children's education just as much as anyone else."
AC Cordoza, a Republican House of Delegates candidate in Hampton, Virginia, added: "This is absolutely ridiculous that Terry McAuliffe is attempting to frame this discussion around race and it has absolutely nothing to do with that."
The parental grievances issue has become a focal point of Youngkin's campaign in the closing weeks of the race. After the debate, his campaign launched a "Parents Matter" series of events, bringing out scores of people to rail against McAuliffe. Despite it not being taught in Virginia schools, the campaign has also focused on critical race theory, a concept that's been around for decades and that seeks to understand and address inequality and racism in the United States.
Democrats have rejected these concerns, arguing they are nothing more than a political tactic to stoke grievance ahead of an election in order to turn out base Republican voters.
"I really get sick and tired of people like Glenn Youngkin and Donald Trump. They constantly are dividing people. They're constantly turning people against one another," McAuliffe said in an interview with CNN this month. "And why are we doing this to our students? All we want to do is give them a quality education."