Welcome to the new Senate District 27, where the run to November’s election is shaping up like a first-rate horror movie, thanks to the ads.
Consider the one that ran in the online edition of the Washington Post this week. It showed Joel Griffin standing against a background lit with an ominous blue hue, straight from a scene in The Ring movie series (and we aren’t talking about the Hobbit.)
Below him in all-cap letters that are white and red is this caption:
STOP JOEL GRIFFIN’S EXTREME AGENDA FOR OUR SCHOOLS
It goes on to suggest that Griffin would unleash a nightmare on unsuspecting children should he defeat Tara Durant (R) for the seat.
Griffin wants parents kept in the dark on what is happening in their children’s schools.
Griffin sides with union bosses over parents
One can almost hear the voiceover from the remake of The Fly – “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”
Here’s the thing, however.
The ad hardly shocks. So use to the over-the-top hyperbole we’ve become that we hardly even stop to think about what these ads are conveying, and how they’re shaping our public discourse. Let’s explore.
(Editor’s note: We’ve not seen similar ads aimed at Tara Durant – yet. Based on the ads flying around during the race for the 7th Congressional seat in 2022, however, we’re sure those ads are just around the corner.)
Not Trying to Hide It
There are certainly people who will disagree with Griffin’s policy positions – even Democrats who will support him will surely quibble with details of his platform.
But is he really this frightening? Does he really want to to keep parents “in the dark” and will he side with “union bosses over parents”?
The makers of this ad source their claims. According to the ad, it’s all in the responses to a Blue Virginia questionnaire that Griffin answered.
Spend a few moments reading that questionnaire and Griffin’s answers, however, and it becomes apparent there’s little, if any, real evidence to support the ad’s claims.
On the charge of keeping parents in the dark, there is no place in his responses where Griffin says that. The closest he comes is this line:
… I will do everything within my power to ensure that LGBTQ+ students feel safe and protected in public school environments. No-one in the commonwealth deserves to feel any less dignity than anyone else.
This is a far cry from keeping parents in the dark. It’s rather a response to the Youngkin Administration’s new “model policies” that would force teachers to out students before they themselves are ready to speak with their families about their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The epidemic of families that turn out young adults wrestling with such issues makes clear that these students often have a right to be concerned and uncomfortable with telling their families.
In an ideal world, parents and children could easily talk about these issues and the youth would feel safe. This simply isn’t reality for too many students, however. (For more on this, see research out of the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall.)
How the schools should handle this tricky situation is certainly worthy of robust public debate. But there’s a yawning gap between Youngkin’s position on outing any student who says something to a teacher about their sexual identity, and keeping parents totally in the dark on such issues.
Nothing in Griffin’s position would suggest that he would advocate keeping parents uninformed. Rather, he is advocating that schools be safe-havens for students who need one, and that these same students deserve the same level of respect as every other student. These are hardly radical ideas.
This ad, however, makes a mockery of the ground between the two extremes, and the need for more-serious debate about this complex topic.
Now for the second charge that Griffin favors union bosses over parents. There are only two other places where Griffin discusses education in this questionnaire. Let’s look at what he said:
Third, I will fight to strengthen and invest in our schools. Our children are the future of our community, and we need to ensure that they have access to the best possible education. That means investing in our schools, our teachers, and our students. And as someone who grew up spending my weekends and summers in libraries because my parents couldn’t afford childcare, I will fight to protect our libraries from attacks from extremist Republicans.
As the husband of a public school teacher, and the father of two girls who attended public schools, I know firsthand that our teachers, schools, and students are all under attack by a false flag culture war being perpetuated by Governor Youngkin and his MAGA Republican cronies to scare voters and score political points. As the next State Senator from District 27, I will be a fervent advocate for fully funding and increasing funding to our public schools and work with labor such as the NEA to ensure that our teachers have all the resources they need to succeed. Moreover, we need to empower teachers to set standards so that we can quell the manufactured crisis that is Critical Race Theory.
Griffin covers a lot of ground here, and his language gets inflammatory at times. “False flag culture war” and “cronies” aren’t exactly terms that will make debate in the public square any easier.
But nothing here suggests he would favor “union bosses” over parents.
To begin, teacher organizations in Spotsylvania, Stafford, and Fredericksburg, which are in the 27th, don’t have collective bargaining power. They’re not true unions.
Then there’s the reality that Griffin himself never once juxtaposes unions and parents. Rather, he talks about partnering with the NEA to ensure that schools, teachers, and students have what the need to be successful.
If we were using the Washington Post’s Pinocchio scale to rate the veracity of this ad’s claims, we’d probably award the ad 4 Pinocchios or the dreaded Geppetto Checkmark.
We’ll give the ad credit, however, for at least pointing to a source – even if they mangled it. At least they’re not hiding what they’re trying to do.
Don’t Blame Durant
The other thing to notice about this ad is who produced it.
Paid for by Virginia Federation for Children PAC. Not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee.
Trying to learn who this PAC is made up of, and where the money they have to fund such attack ads comes from, is no easy task.
A trip to VFCPAC’s website yields a graphic and nothing else.
Transparency USA has a bit more info, including cash on hand, top funders, and top payees.
The top donor is American Federation for Children Federal which, according to SourceWatch, is:
a conservative 501(c)(4) dark money group that promotes the school privatization agenda via the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other avenues. It is the 501(c)(4) arm of the 501(c)(3) non-profit group the Alliance for School Choice. The group was organized and is funded by the billionaire DeVos family, who are the heirs to the Amway fortune. Former Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, who was charged with multiple crimes stemming from abuse of his office, is on staff at AFC as Senior Advisor to its Government Affairs Team.
Why does any of this matter?
Because it is one of many dark-money groups pushing a national agenda by spending lavishly in races like the 27th in Virginia, where Youngkin has made establishing charter schools and dismantling public schools as we know them a priority of his administration.
The point of this ad is not to inform voters about the candidates. Or educate voters about the issues. It’s to twist anything the makers can find to paint a candidate negatively so that the funder can advance an agenda.
As the campaign heats up, expect to see many, many more of these ads.
Griffin’s campaign manager Jeremy Levinson tells the Advance via email:
It’s unfortunate that Durant and her allies have to resort to falsities to attempt to paint a negative portrait of Joel Griffin.
The problem is, however, that Durant – in all likelihood – had nothing to do with this ad. No more than Griffin will have anything to do with the attack ads sure to be coming that unfairly criticize Durant. (The Advance will be watching for these.)
How to Handle Dark-money-funded Attack Ads
The pervasiveness of these type of attack ads leads one to ask – do they really work?
A 2013 article in Scientific American suggests that that question is very much up for debate.
A comprehensive literature analysis published in 2007 in the Journal of Politics examined the effects of political ads. The authors reported that negative ads tended to be more memorable than positive ones but that they did not affect voter choice. People were no less likely to turn out to the polls or to decide against voting for a candidate who was attacked in an ad.
More recently, a report published in YaleNews supports these findings.
“There’s an idea that a really good ad, or one delivered in just the right context to a targeted audience, can influence voters, but we found that political ads have consistently small persuasive effects across a range of characteristics,” said Coppock, an assistant professor of political science in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “Positive ads work no better than attack ads. Republicans, Democrats, and independents respond to ads similarly. Ads aired in battleground states aren’t substantially more effective than those broadcast in non-swing states.”
Whether such ads work will continue to be debated in academia. But on the ground, it does seem clear that these ads go a long way toward framing how we talk about issues.
The success of Younkin’s intellectually flaccid “parents rights” argument, for example, shows the power of a phrase to shape elections.
In Spotsylvania, the parents’ right mantra has been used by the conservative majority on the school board to shut down any dissent to any thought or idea that contradicts what they are promoting. This despite the obvious contradictions in what they’re doing.
What about the rights of parents who want their children to read books that Jen Peterson wants banned? Are ok with their children feeling safe talking to their teachers before they talk to them about a sensitive matter? Want their children exposed to ideas that will make them uncomfortable?
Repeatedly, the answer implied by the Spotsy School Board majority in their refusing to address the issue is, “We don’t care about those parents’ rights.”
When simple memes cooked up to promote an agenda take hold, deep thought and critical public-square debate suffers.
How can we handle this? Two ideas.
- When candidates become aware of these ads, they should publicly repudiate them. To be effective, both candidates much agree to do this. It may hurt them with the red-meat bases, but it would go a long way toward softening our public discourse. Will Durant and Griffin agree to do this?
- Voters should stop allowing blatantly false campaign ads to define the public debate. Even if ads don’t ultimately affect votes, they almost certainly affect the public discourse. And in no wise is this influence a good one for the body politic.
Two simple ideas that, executed properly, would greatly slow the excess money spent on these campaigns.
How much? Though hard estimates are difficult to come by, the Advance has been told by people who track such matters that this race will cost between $3 million and $7 million to win.
That’s a mindnumbing sum for a state senate seat.
That dark money will be accounting for a significant portion of that spending should cause voters alarm.
And it should cause both them and candidates to take responsibility for slowing this money’s influence.
Allowing such ads to continue influencing local elections will only lead to one thing – a horror show worse than the one we’ve been watching in Spotsylvania for the past two years.