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Republicans target Democrats and teachers unions over school closures in bid to regain suburban foothold

Posted February 4, 2021 12:34 p.m. EST

— Republicans in charge of taking back the House and Senate next year hope that a new message focused on reopening schools -- and blaming Democrats and their allies in organized labor for continued closures -- will lure back suburban voters who spurned them in 2020.

The Republican Senate and House campaign arms, along with Republican outside groups, have coalesced behind a unified message of reopening schools, hoping to put Democrats in a difficult spot between teachers unions and parents, who desperately want their kids to go back to the pre-pandemic days of in-person learning. The fight could also act as a salve for all-out Republican infighting, giving the party a message and target while many are turning their rhetorical fire on each other.

As they ramp up their criticism, Republicans are seeking a return of their own -- to a strategy of tying Democrats to organized labor during a time of strain centering on a hot button issue with special resonance in the suburbs. GOP officials have in a series of coordinated attacks accused Democrats of turning their backs on scientific evidence in order to placate teachers unions, who have been hesitant in some cases to bring members back to classrooms amid concerns over safe working conditions.

"Science is not the obstacle. Federal money is not the obstacle. The obstacle is a lack of willpower," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday. "Not among students. Not among parents. Just among the rich, powerful unions that donate huge sums to Democrats and get a stranglehold over education in many communities."

McConnell's remarks set off a firestorm among some Democrats and union leaders, who accused the Senate's top Republican of seeking to gin up misguided anger over an issue that the GOP, during the last year of Donald Trump's presidency, largely ignored.

The Biden administration, which has been peppered with questions about in-person learning as the Republican blitz picks up speed, supports re-opening schools, but has largely stayed in lockstep with teachers unions as they push for funds to redesign and update the modern classroom in a way that meets Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued safety guidelines.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, hit back at McConnell in an interview, accusing Republicans of "rank hypocrisy" and blamed the previous administration's trafficking in disinformation about the pandemic for effectively engineering the current impasse.

"That (McConnell) would scapegoats educators -- it's exactly like Trump scapegoating health care workers, when there was a shortage of PPE, suggesting that they were stealing the PPE," Weingarten told CNN.

She also described the latest round of messaging from Republican leaders as a transparent attempt to turn frustrated parents against hard-working educators who share similar concerns, but are demanding more robust government aid to assure a safe return.

"They always fight for the big guy, and they always try to pit the little guy against each other," Weingarten said of Republicans. "It is pathetic that the people who are on the front line, people who have been helping kids all throughout this time, turning their lives upside down, working triple and quadruple time, and (Republicans) are trying to pit them against parents and scapegoat them to mask their own failures."

Winning back the suburbs

For Republicans, the politics are less complicated than the underlying issue: The suburbs were the primary cause of GOP losses in both the 2018 midterms and 2020 election, with candidates like Trump ceding significant ground with moderate Republican voters. Talk of schools and casting the unions and their Democratic allies as the only barrier to a return to pre-pandemic normalcy offers, in Republicans' estimation, a more convincing case to suburban voters with school-aged children than the race-baiting rhetoric over migrant caravans and gang violence that the party adopted under Trump.

Republican senators introduced a budget amendment on Thursday to withhold Covid relief funding for schools that don't reopen in-person learning after teachers are vaccinated. Even though it won't pass, the ploy will put Democrats on record for a vote that Republicans could use in political attacks.

And Republicans with their eyes on the party's presidential nomination in 2024 have begun to weigh in on the issue.

"There is a real decision to be made in America right now that will have lasting implications," tweeted Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and top diplomat under Trump. "Choosing between the unions and our children. If our children are our future, then where is the President?"

Whether the message will land in the nation's suburbs, however, remains an open question.

Amanda Mitsuda, a mother of four who lives in the Phoenix suburb of Gilbert, said on Wednesday that she was thrilled this week when her children -- one 16-year-old high school junior, one 13-year-old eighth grader and 11-year old twins in fifth grade -- went back to in-person learning this week. But the registered Republican who voted for Biden in 2020 said the issue does nothing to change her view of current Republicans.

"I am friends with a lot of people that are very angry and they feel like the kids should be in school," Mitsuda said. "Dr. (Anthony) Fauci is saying the literature doesn't support keeping the kids from schools... so, I do think that should ultimately be what we are heading towards."

But any attempt by Republicans to use the issue to win back Trump-skeptic voters are "totally missing the point," she said. "There are some major things they have to correct, like letting particular people go that supported Trump."

House Republican leadership's refusal so far to sideline or denounce members like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose long history espousing radical right-wing conspiracy theories has caused an uproar among Democrats and some in the GOP, suggests the new messaging pivot might not pass muster.

"The schools," Mitsuda said, are "small fries" when compared to more existential Republican issues.

Whether Republicans can win back the suburbs will be central to their success in 2022. In Arizona, the party's problem were acute: Not only did the state elect two Democratic Senators -- Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly -- during the Trump era, but Biden last year became just the second Democratic presidential candidate to win there since 1948. The swing has left Republican looking for ways to reverse the trend ahead of midterm elections that traditionally favor the opposition party.

As they try to put a dent in Democrats' gains, National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman T.W. Arrighi this week sought to reframe the terms of the debate. "'Unions Above Children,'" he declared, "is the new motto of the Democrats' plan to reopen schools."

But the Trump wing of the party remains robust -- and hard to ignore -- on Capitol Hill. The party establishment is twisted in knots over what to do about Greene, a fierce Trump backer who has laughed off or scorned their attempts to rein her in.

"She's not going to be the face of the party," Florida Sen. Rick Scott, the new chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said of Greene.

Fight happening at local level

The Republican strategy of hitting Democrats for school closures has been buoyed by data from the federal government, including a number of the same agencies and figures targeted and denigrated by Trump during his time in office.

"There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said on Wednesday. "Safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely."

Major unions have largely acknowledge that it will be impossible to fully vaccinate their members as a precondition for returning, though many have asked officials to more highly prioritize educators. There has been more focus, broadly, on ramping up in-school testing, establishing clear safety metrics and improving building infrastructure, like ventilation.

Last week, the CDC released a report on schools in a rural Wisconsin county last fall, which found that of the 191 Covid cases identified in students and staff, only seven — all students — were linked to in-school spread. Republicans have sought to use the results to flip the script on Democrats, who campaigned in 2020, led by Biden, by pledging, above all else, to follow the science on the coronavirus.

Weingarten called the Wisconsin study a "really good piece of data," but said the survey -- which covered 17 schools with, as the CDC wrote, "appropriate mitigation efforts in place" -- did not offer an "apples to apples comparison to what's happened in Chicago" and other major cities.

Democrats in Washington, including some of Biden's top lieutenants, have also pushed back on the suggestion that they are bending to unreasonable requests from supporters in organized labor.

Jeffrey Zients, Biden's Covid czar, said Wednesday Congress has "to do its part" in passing the president's $1.9 trillion plan to address the health and economic crises, including additional funding to give schools "better access" to testing, personal protective equipment, improve ventilation and school sanitization, and "support the learning and social, emotional needs of our kids in what have been an extremely, extremely difficult year."

"President Biden has been very clear that he wants schools to reopen, and actually to stay open," said Zients.

But the brunt of the fight is being felt most intensely at the local level.

City and county officials -- not the federal government -- determine the operations of school districts. In Chicago, the public schools system and teachers union are locked in tense negotiations over safety metrics, vaccine distribution and accommodations for teachers in high-risk households. The city attorney in San Francisco sued its school district Wednesday to try to reopen schools. And in Virginia, the Democratic-controlled state Senate passed a bill sponsored by a Republican on Tuesday to require local districts to make in-person learning available to students.

"I think there's a lot of parents who are now looking at their public schools a little bit differently than they had before," said GOP pollster Robert Blizzard, whose firm recently looked at the issue in suburban Virginia. "They may forgive but they're not going to forget.

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