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The waning influence of Moms for Liberty

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The right-wing group Moms for Liberty has been a force in clashes over what public schools can teach or not about sexuality and race, but its influence may be on the wane. Last week, the group lost closely watched school board races in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Iowa. As Jim Zarroli reports, Moms for Liberty is facing growing resistance at the local level.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Karen Svoboda and her husband have a large blended family of seven kids in New York's Dutchess County. They try to pay attention to what's happening in local schools. So when Moms for Liberty endorsed a slate of school board candidates last year, Svoboda did some research.

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KAREN SVOBODA: And then I looked into the local Facebook page of Moms for Liberty and just browsed through some of the social media of some of these individuals. And what I saw was very upsetting.

ZARROLI: The Southern Poverty Law Center has called Moms for Liberty a hate group. It supports efforts to oppose pandemic restrictions, suppress discussion of LGBTQ issues and remove books in local schools across the country. Many of the comments Svoboda read attacked her local school's teachings on gender and racial equity issues. One post in particular bothered Svoboda, who has gay and nonbinary kids in her family. It said a gay students group at the high school was indoctrinating students.

SVOBODA: As a mom of kids who are members of that community, it was very concerning to think that these people would be trying to get onto the school board, 'cause what does that mean for my kids?

ZARROLI: Svoboda knew Moms for Liberty had supporters locally. Dutchess County is an hour and a half north of progressive New York City, but it's a swing district politically. Political scientist Maurice Cunningham says the group appeals to people who feel disenfranchised from politics.

MAURICE CUNNINGHAM: And that may be more potent in blue areas where very conservative people may feel like they don't have a way to fight back. And Moms for Liberty gives them one.

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ZARROLI: Svoboda started a group called Defense of Democracy to get the word out about some of the school board candidates. It's part of a nationwide grassroots counteroffensive against conservative efforts targeting schools. Katie Paris, who founded a network of liberal suburban women called Red Wine and Blue, says the culture warriors running for school board in many places are out of step with most voters.

KATIE PARIS: They don't represent the majority, but they are very loud, and their views are very extreme. And we have seen what can happen when just a few people start to sow chaos in any individual school district.

ZARROLI: Svoboda's group has had its successes. It helped defeat an entire slate of Moms for Liberty school board candidates last year. She also began to hear from people all over the country worried about the group's influence in schools. And Defense of Democracy now has chapters across the country. They hold Zoom calls once a week. But it hasn't been easy.

SVOBODA: In 2022 was my first death threat, yes. I received a message on social media saying they wanted to put me into a wood chipper.

ZARROLI: She's lost some battles. Her group tried and failed to get Moms for Liberty barred from a local community day parade. The Dutchess County Moms for Liberty chapter didn't respond to interview requests, but former state assemblyman Kieran Lalor, a Republican, insists that many local parents share the group's views.

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KIERAN LALOR: You need a club for sexuality in your high school, sponsored by the school? I don't know. That doesn't really reflect the values of this community, but it's there.

ZARROLI: Lalor says conservatives have had trouble winning school board races because of opposition from progressive teachers unions. But he says groups like Moms for Liberty can prevail.

LALOR: If they keep at it, and I hope they do, they will be successful and start to win back some of the school boards.

ZARROLI: But in last week's elections, candidates Moms for Liberty endorsed lost numerous high-profile races. The group points out that some 40% of its endorsed candidates did win, which it says is not bad considering that many were running for the first time. And it's already preparing for next year's elections. But it will do so facing an energized and growing grassroots opposition.

For NPR News, I'm Jim Zarroli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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