Education Takes Leading Role in Governor’s Races

by Leah Askarinam October 4, 2018 · 1:14 PM EDT

As teacher protests in West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Kentucky fade from the national spotlight, education continues to shine as a campaign issue as a handful of candidates bring academic credentials to high-profile elections.

Because education is largely considered a state issue, the fallout from teacher strikes throughout the country has primarily manifested in state legislatures. In Oklahoma, eight members of the state House who voted against a bill increasing teacher pay lost re-election in their primaries or subsequent runoffs. As New York Magazine observed, only four of the 19 Republicans in the State House who voted against teacher salary increases will make it on to the general election ballot this fall.

While Democrats running for Congress are focused on health care, the predominant message of each governor’s race varies by state. But Democratic strategists believe that public education is a top issue for governor’s races this year, arguing that while voters trusted Republican governors to fix their state budgets after the recession (sometimes by cutting education spending), priorities have since shifted.

Based on the individual candidates, it’s clear that education will take a leading role in this year’s gubernatorial races. The Democratic field includes a current superintendent, a couple former teachers, and a professor who teaches teaching. But even in competitive states like Kansas where the candidates’ resumes aren’t rooted in schools, education is expected to play a major role. (Democratic nominee Laura Kelly wrote an op-ed for the Kansas City Star in July with the headline “I Will Be the Education Governor Kansans Deserve.”)

Arizona wasn’t regarded as a serious Democratic takeover opportunity early in the cycle, but teacher strikes helped make Gov. Doug Ducey’s re-election race more competitive. Democrats believe that the narrative that played out will be a cloud over the Republican governor in the general election, especially given that their candidate, David Garcia, is a professor at Arizona State University’s Teachers College. Garcia was also associate superintendent of the Arizona Department of Education. Republicans, on the other hand, believe Ducey handled the crisis better than some of his colleaugues. We have Arizona rated as Lean Republican.

In Oklahoma, Republican Mary Fallin’s handling of the teacher walkouts helped land her near the top of the list of least popular governors and contributes to Democratic enthusiasm about her open seat. The Democratic nominee, Oklahoma attorney general Drew Edmondson, is a former speech and debate teacher. We have the race rated as Lean Republican.

In Minnesota, Rep. Tim Walz is the Democratic-Farmer-Labor nominee for the governorship. He’s referred to the office of the governor as “the educator-in-chief” and has pointed to his past as a teacher and football coach to establish his credentials. Minnesota is rated Lean DFL in the race to replace DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.

Democrats in Wisconsin nominated state superintendent Tony Evers to take on GOP Gov. Scott Walker and believe education will be at the front of voters’ minds. We have the race rated as a Toss-up.

Education on its own might not be a major motivating factor for turnout, but Democrats believe it helps gubernatorial candidates build a larger message: that while Republican incumbents are focused on ideological battles, Democratic challengers are focused on practical change that will benefit constituents.

Beyond the state level, teachers and education could also have an impact in some federal races.

In West Virginia’s 3rd District, Democrat Richard Ojeda has aligned himself closely with organized labor, including teachers, in the area and is hoping to win an open seat that President Donald Trump carried easily in 2016. And in Connecticut’s 5th District, 2016 National Teacher of the Year Jahana Hayes, a Democrat, is set to win Rep. Elizabeth Esty’s open seat.

Back in April, discussing the role of education in the midterms, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten expressed a common sentiment: that voters historically haven’t chosen their candidates based on their views on education.

“I think most of the time, as important as education is to people, people haven’t voted on education issues,” Weingarten said. “And in some ways, I think that as a result...that we’re in the crisis we’re in right now, that 29 states spend less on public education than before the recession.”

“You’re seeing a reckoning right now of people,” she added. “Not just teachers...teachers and parents and broader communities saying, ‘this is enough.’”