Julia Pulver, a 36-year-old nurse who is running to represent Oakland County in the Michigan state legislature, can pinpoint the moment that the momentum in her race against Republican incumbent Ryan Berman shifted decisively. This spring, as Michigan was reeling from the pandemic and facing a collapse in revenue, Berman joined with a small group of Republicans to urge the state’s congressional delegation to reject federal funds meant to help Michigan recover. The backlash in Berman’s district, northwest of Detroit, was swift and furious, recalls Pulver. School leaders from the five school districts that lie inside the 39th district were outraged at what they saw as a deliberate effort by their elected representative to torpedo their efforts to safely reopen.
“That really did it. People who’d been willing to give him a chance until then started saying, ‘That’s it,’” says Pulver. “He missed an opportunity to serve our community because he was more interested in punishing the governor and the state.”
Michigan Democrats are hoping that this will be the year that they finally succeed in taking control of the state House. They made significant inroads in 2018 and must flip just four additional seats to reach their goal. Despite an election cycle consumed by President Donald Trump and the state’s bitter partisan battles over masks and lockdowns, education remains a potent political issue here. And it’s not just in Michigan that the GOP’s perceived hostility to public schools has created an opening for Democrats. The extreme discourse of the Trump/DeVos era that paints “government schools” as centers of indoctrination is alienating voters in both parties.
If Democrats manage to take control of the Arizona House for the first time since 1966, it will be thanks to candidates like Eric Kurland. Kurland, a former Scottsdale language arts teacher, ran in a solidly red district in Maricopa County in 2018 and came up short by just three points. But much has changed since his last election. His suburban district has grown more diverse, while Republicans seem more determined to alienate the moderates who’ve long been key to their dominance here. This time around, Kurland predicts that he’ll be victorious, in part because his focus on Arizona’s abysmal school funding resonates with voters.
“Voters in this district really care about their schools, and they believe that our kids deserve better,” says Kurland. “For two decades, the majority party has underfunded our schools, and people have had enough.”
In 2018 Kurland was part of a wave of teachers in Arizona, and across the country, who ran for office, fueled by the #RedforEd protests that saw teachers shut down schools to demand higher pay and more education funding. While there may be less fanfare around teacher candidates in Arizona this time around, they’re now poised to help tip the balance in favor of Democrats in Phoenix.
Christine Porter Marsh, the 2012 Arizona teacher of the year, came within just 267 votes of unseating an incumbent GOP state senator in a district north of Phoenix. But while Marsh is facing the same opponent this time around, Senator Kate Brophy McGee, Marsh’s odds are viewed as substantially better than in 2018. Voter rolls in this part of Maricopa county have swelled by 17,000—three-quarters of them Democrats. And the state GOP’s embrace of extremism in the Trump era isn’t helping McGee, one of the few remaining moderates in the party.
Take the issue of private school vouchers. Arizona voters crushed a ballot measure that would have made every student in the state eligible for a taxpayer-funded school voucher. Despite that resounding defeat, GOP lawmakers have remained laser-focused on expanding the voucher program, including enacting a controversial measure that would allow Native American students to attend private religious schools across state lines. The bill passed with the support of McGee, who had previously been an opponent of voucher expansion.
Marsh says that the disconnect between what voters in her district care about and the priorities of the GOP on a key issue like education is enabling her to attract voters who would formerly have voted Republican.
“I think that voters and citizens in general are fed up,” says Marsh, who teaches middle school English in Scottsdale. “There’s been a complete abdication of funding education in this state and Republicans are going to pay a price for that in 2020.”
A big shift
Pollster Charles Siler says that an increasingly vocal right wing in the Arizona Republican party that paints public schools as socialist indoctrination camps is pushing away more moderate constituents, a shift that he argues will likely have long-term implications. “Republican voters like public schools and this extreme rhetoric just doesn’t speak to them,” says Siler, a former lobbyist for the conservative Goldwater Institute who now advises pro–public education candidates, including Eric Kurland.
A similar shift has been underway in North Texas in recent years. Signs proclaiming “I support public education and I vote” now dot lawns around Plano and north Dallas, site of a hotly contested race in House District 66. Democrat Sharon Hirsch, a former school administrator, came within 400 votes of ousting Republican Matt Shaheen, a founder of the hard-right Freedom Caucus. This time around Hirsch has far outpaced Shaheen in the money race and is viewed as having a good shot at tipping the seat into the “D” column, one of nine seats the Democrats will need to flip in order to gain control of the 150-seat Texas House.
“She’s attracting Republicans who might not have voted for a Democrat in the past,” says Missy Bender, the regional advocacy director in Colin and Denton counties for the pro–public education nonprofit Raise Your Hand Texas.
The sharp partisan divide over education that’s playing out in Arizona is harder to see in Texas during this election cycle. That’s because Republican candidates who were perceived as hostile to public education already paid a price at the polls in 2018, a message lawmakers like Shaheen seem to have gotten loud and clear. At a recent candidate forum on public education, the GOP incumbent painted himself as an ardent supporter of local schools.
But Bender says that voters still haven’t forgotten the party’s hard-right pivot in 2017, led by Shaheen and his fellow Texas Freedom Caucus members. The caucus pushed culture war causes, including private school vouchers, anti-abortion measures, and a “bathroom bill,” restricting bathroom access by transgender Texans, even as a school funding crisis loomed.
“Those struggles over public education tilled the soil for GOP voters to begin supporting moderate Democrats,” says Bender. And with no straight-ticket voting allowed in 2020, she’s anticipating more defections.
In the waning days of the 2020 campaign season, Betsy DeVos returned to her home state of Michigan to deliver one of the most partisan speeches of her tenure as secretary of education. Participating in a forum on education at conservative Hillsdale College, DeVos painted a dark picture of public schools inducting children into socialism, teaching them “to believe not in themselves, but in government.” Public education, she warned, seeks to replace the home with the school building, the family with the state.
It was a message that Winnie Brinks, a Democratic Michigan state senator representing DeVos’s home turf of Grand Rapids, has been hearing for years. Brinks was first elected to the state House in 2012, winning in a district that had been gerrymandered to favor Republicans. She ran for Senate in 2018, flipping what had been a GOP seat in a decisive victory. Education has been her signature issue throughout her time in Lansing.
“The intense dislike of government, the hostility towards public schools, it’s nothing new, and a lot of it can be traced back to DeVos,” says Brinks.
But if the message has been constant, the audience has eroded. Grand Rapids and Kent County are in the midst of a demographic transformation as young professionals—educated and Democratic leaning—move in.
“Things are changing, and I’m really optimistic,” says Brinks.
On the other side of the state, Julia Pulver is feeling increasingly upbeat about her chances, despite running in a district that was drawn to favor the GOP. Back in 2010, blue-leaning West Bloomfield Township was sliced and diced, paired with the more conservative community of Commerce in an effort to create a safe Republican seat. But this is one of the rare parts of Michigan that’s growing, and new residents are younger and more diverse. “This community has changed and so have its values,” says Pulver. “People look at who has been representing them and they want to know ‘where are the solutions?’”
In states across the country, the GOP’s hard-right turn on public education is turning off voters. If Democrats succeed in taking back statehouses on November 3, education will be a major reason why.