Arizona Republicans want a victory in the school culture war. A moderate Democrat stands in their way.

The Republican primary includes a former state superintendent turned attorney general, a real estate business owner who now tops the latest GOP primary poll, and a state representative from Maricopa County who came out on top. married into the Udall family political dynasty.

They have courted endorsements from far-right figures, including former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Rep. Paul Gosar. And each of the aspiring school leaders have portrayed classrooms as being overrun with hypersexualized lessons and critical race theory that hurt children who are still regrouping after months of mask mandates and school closures.

“You used to couldn’t pay someone enough to attend an education board meeting – now all of a sudden they’re fighting in school districts,” Mike Noble of OH Predictive Insights, a nonpartisan pollster of Arizona who followed Republican voters’ favorite candidates throughout the campaign, said in an interview.

“Critical race theory has really caught on, especially with right-wingers, so that’s sort of their battlefront for the Superintendent of Public Instruction,” Noble said. “It’s one that really resonates with the Republican base.”

Critical race theory is an analytical practice that examines how race and racism permeate American law and society. Most public school officials across the country say they don’t teach the theory, even in districts where lawmakers seek to ban it.

Hoffman, a speech therapist who first took office as a political novice in a shock victory in 2018, thinks she can win with a message that appeals to independent voters – who made up about a third of the Arizona electorate last year – and to moderate Republicans willing to cross party lines. She’s trying to construct the kind of message advocated by national liberal education groups jostling to help Democrats gain ground on education policy.

“It can be disheartening to me to see the divisive language that really drives a wedge between our schools and our families,” Hoffman said of his Republican opponents in an interview. She is running unopposed in her party’s primary.

“They want to run our school system. Yet they attack it and have this very negative rhetoric of distrust around our public schools at a time when our schools need our support more than ever,” she said.

While Republicans hoping to challenge Hoffman in November have complained about classroom lessons, conservatives control Arizona’s education policy. Ducey and the state’s GOP-controlled legislature enacted a rush for education laws during the pandemic despite Hoffman’s opposition, including a universal school voucher program and bans on sports participation and gender-affirming surgeries for LGBTQ youth.

The state superintendent technically assumes an administrative role in distributing school funding and enforcing laws and policies, although he also holds influential positions on the state board of education and board of directors. state university regents.

Democrats nationwide are also struggling to regain their grip on school politics after Youngkin was elected last year with the help of frustrated, voting parents angered by the aftermath of Covid-19 school closures. 19.

Research from the Liberal advocacy group shows the party has lost the trust of voters and parents in dozens of congressional battlegrounds, including Arizona, to manage education. And polls underscore frustration that the two major parties — but especially the Democrats — are focusing more on race and gender instead of helping students get back on track in the classroom.

“The political high ground in education debates will be held by the side seen as focused on advancing the fundamentals of education,” pollsters from Hart Research Associates wrote in a June 21 memo for the group. work of the American Federation of Teachers, following interviews with 1,758 likely voters in Arizona and six other battleground states. “The side seen as politicizing education will be at a distinct disadvantage.”

The trio of Republicans listed in Tuesday’s primary poll agree they want to scrap the education policy and get schools back to basics, even as they appeal to party-line voters with appeals based on Culture.

“It’s a terrible, terrible direction the country has gone in,” said Tom Horne, one of Hoffman’s top opponents who is seeking a political comeback after terms as state attorney general and chief justice officer. ‘school.

The race’s main fundraiser, largely through $550,000 in personal loans to his own campaign, Horne promoted his past endeavors to ban local Mexican-American studies programs — later ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge — as a mainstay of his campaign despite a previous record of alleged campaign finance violations and a reported FBI investigation.

“I want to put the focus back on academics,” Horne said in an interview. “I want to get rid of distractions, which in addition to being distractions from academics, are inherently evil and immoral and retrograde by emphasizing race and sexuality rather than teaching children to treat themselves as individuals. .”

Real estate broker Shiry Sapir said she pulled her children out of public school and enrolled them in a private institution when Covid-19 pushed classes towards remote learning, and she surged in local polls this summer.

“I literally traveled all over the state talking to different Republican groups. The message from them is absolutely what I talked about: sexualization, grooming, critical race theory, lack of academic excellence, and of course the issues with masks,” Sapir said in an interview.

“It’s not just the conservative mothers, and it’s not their anger. It is their concern. We are worried about our children,” Sapir said. “I am an extension of that. I am the voice we don’t have. I am the voice we must have.

State Rep. Michelle Udall, chair of the Arizona House Education Committee and certified math professor, backed legislation that would have allowed state regulators and civil courts to revoke educators’ licenses and to fine schools $5,000 if “any form of blame or judgment based on race, ethnicity or gender” is part of their curriculum.

“You can teach the facts, you can teach what happened, and you can help students understand the horrible things that people have been through and the horrible results that racism brings,” Udall said in an interview. “Students need to know this story. These are skills and knowledge they need to be successful. While critical race theory and gender identity, this is not the case.

The Conservatives are looking at a very tight race. An OH Predictive Insights poll of about 500 likely GOP primary voters from July 27 showed Horne and Sapir tied for first place with support from 21% of respondents. Udall was in third place with 14%. Forty-four percent of voters said they were undecided. The survey had an approximate margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

Still, it’s not clear that Arizona general election voters will flock to a Republican superintendent candidate who has focused on cultivating the more conservative wing of the party.

A May survey of 500 likely voters in the state commissioned by the organization Education Forward Arizona found that less than half of those polled favored banning critical race theory or restricting discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation during sex education.

That leaves Hoffman, who has endorsements from the Human Rights Campaign and Planned Parenthood, to save his campaign funds and prepare for the fall.

“We have such a high number of independent voters here and also a portion of Democrats and Republicans who will cross party lines for a candidate they believe in,” Hoffman said.

“I hope I’ll be a model,” she said. “We will find out in November.”

Carol C. Reed