A month out from the midterm elections, Republican candidates around the country are confronting a shared, and significant, vulnerability: education.
The conservative wave of 2010 allowed Republicans to implement slash-and-burn governance in several states—what Kansas Governor Sam Brownback called a “real live experiment” in tax cuts for corporate interests and cuts to services for everyone else. One of the most devastating casualties was public schools and universities.
Now, several Republicans could fall victim to their own experiment. Conservatives are on the defensive in Kansas, North Carolina, Michigan, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Florida and Wisconsin over their records on education. The issue features prominently not only in local and gubernatorial campaigns but also in Senate races that many predicted would be referenda on Barack Obama, not on conservative governance at the state level.
Sweeping budget cuts have created “a perfect storm that’s put education at front and center at every level of every office,” said Karen White, political director for the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union. “It’s really taken a couple of years for these cuts to reach down to the individual level, but that’s now happened.”
In states like Kansas, where 95 percent of children attend public schools, education affects a broad swath of voters. Even in that reddest of red states, the cuts championed by Governor Sam Brownback have alienated many of his former supporters. For their part, Democrats are leveraging education to engage key slices of their own electorate in states like North Carolina, particularly women and minority voters. “People are really using the issue of education to talk specifically to drop-off voters,” White noted.
The NEA plans to spend as much as $60 million this year, with more than 70 percent devoted state-level races. White said that many of NEA’s 3 million members will also be personally involved in their local races, making phone calls and sending handwritten postcards. The second-largest teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, plans to spend more than $20 million, a record amount even when considering presidential election years. AFT will spend most of its money trying to defend Senate Democrats and flip governor’s seats in states where education cuts have been particularly harsh.