OpinionUnion Report

Analysis: The One Senator Teachers Unions Might Have Swayed on DeVos Is the One Who Couldn’t Vote ‘No’

By Mike Antonucci | February 7, 2017

Photo: Getty Images / Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski
In the last few days leading up to Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as secretary of education, the outcome was entirely dependent on whether her opponents, led primarily by the two national teachers unions, were able to persuade one additional Republican senator to switch from aye to nay.
(The 74: Betsy DeVos Confirmed as Education Secretary After Historic Tie-Breaking Vote from VP, Unrelenting Opposition)
Education is one of the few issues in national politics that does not always fall along traditional party lines. The eventually derided No Child Left Behind Act, signed by President George W. Bush, was shepherded through Congress by Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rep. George Miller, both distinguished Democrats, and passed Congress with more Democratic than Republican votes.
But the nation’s two large teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, nearly always view education as a partisan cause. The unions routinely send upwards of 90 percent of their contributions to Democratic candidates. Many of their highest-ranking officers are Democratic Party superdelegates, electors and committee members.
When Republicans do receive union contributions, the circumstances tend to be unusual.
For instance, unions occasionally direct contributions to GOP candidates in order to prevent other, more conservative candidates from winning seats.
Additionally, contributions to Republicans go to incumbents and almost never to those vying for open seats or challenging a Democrat. If a Democratic challenger is highly unlikely to win, especially in a red state, the union may instead endorse the Republican incumbent. This is still rare, and more likely to happen in a House than a Senate race.
That’s because the final consideration for unions is how they may affect the composition of the House or Senate. A Democratic candidate will typically be helped if the party needs only three or four seats to capture a majority, but not necessarily if 50 seats are needed.
With these factors in mind, we can re-examine the gulf between the “no” votes on the DeVos nomination by Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and the “aye” votes of all of the other 50 Republican senators.
Conservative media outlets have noted that both Collins and Murkowski received campaign contributions from the teachers unions but failed to report on how and why those gifts were made. Collins was elected to the open Senate seat in Maine in 1996 against Democrat Joe Brennan. Collins was as moderate a Republican then as she is now, but the Maine Education Association endorsed Brennan.
She ran for re-election in 2002 and sought union support, but MEA endorsed her Democratic opponent, Chellie Pingree. Pingree was a strong candidate, made more appealing by the fact that the Senate was evenly split. Collins’s victory helped the GOP win a slim majority.
In 2008, Collins again asked for the union’s endorsement, but in a split vote, she lost out to Democratic candidate Tom Allen. The union again cited the possibility of winning a Democratic majority in the Senate. Collins responded by forming her own group of teacher supporters and then went on to crush Allen in the election.
By 2014 MEA had gotten the message, sort of. Collins was up against Democrat Shenna Bellows, who, despite her background as executive director of the state’s ACLU chapter, was having trouble lining up support from the traditional liberal interest groups. MEA still didn’t endorse Collins, electing to endorse no one at all. Collins captured 68 percent of the vote.
So those who suggest Collins voted against DeVos to cozy up to the teachers unions are ignoring the fact that Collins never really had, nor does she really need, the teachers unions. In fact, her checkered history with the MEA might partly explain why she voted against DeVos but would not be responsible for killing her nomination in committee or delaying the committee or floor votes.
Sen. Murkowski’s relationship with the teachers unions is unique. She was appointed to her Senate seat in 2002 by her father, who vacated it in order to become governor of Alaska. In 2004, NEA Alaska endorsed her Democratic opponent, Tony Knowles. Murkowski won a three-point victory.
In 2010 Murkowski was challenged in a primary by Tea Party candidate Joe Miller. NEA Alaska endorsed Murkowski to keep Miller out, but he won.
Murkowski then launched a write-in campaign. The union made a calculation that in a red state she was a better bet to defeat Miller than was Democratic candidate Scott McAdams. NEA Alaska continued to support her in the general election, which she won with 39 percent of the vote.
In 2016 the Democrats again fielded a weak candidate, and Miller ran as a Libertarian. This time it was an easy decision for the union to endorse the incumbent Murkowski. She captured 44 percent of the vote.
Unlike Collins, Murkowski needed union support to maintain her hold on her seat. But Murkowski is not up for re-election until 2022. By then we could already have a new president and secretary of education, and the DeVos vote would be merely a political footnote. Just as with Collins, Murkowski’s vote cannot be explained away as a sop to the teachers unions.
So why couldn’t teachers unions and DeVos opponents flip one more GOP vote? It’s actually quite simple. Even though every single vote would be necessary, that third senator’s vote that would be perceived as defeating the nomination.
If there were any political price to be paid, it is likely the third senator would have to pay it. Collins is too secure in a blue state to be challenged, and Murkowski’s election is too far away. All the senators floated as possible swing votes gain little benefit by defying the GOP leadership.
For example, Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada is up for re-election in 2018 in a blue state, but he needs the Republican Party more than he needs the relatively weak Nevada teachers union. Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska is also up for re-election in 2018, but she’s in a solidly red state and holds the seat that formerly belonged to Ben Nelson, who decided to retire in 2012 after being perceived as casting the deciding vote in the Senate for Obamacare.
The only viable target for a flipped vote would have been a senator whose re-election is far off, who is firmly seated in a red state so he’s not in danger of losing to a Democrat even with lukewarm GOP support, and who has the respect of the education community along with a cordial relationship with the teachers unions.
Amazingly enough, that person exists. It’s Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and 2016 National Education Association Friend of Education — and DeVos’s chief supporter in the Senate.
Not surprisingly, no one suggested targeting Alexander as a potential flip, leaving the unions with no strategy other than “any senator, for any reason.”
There wasn’t any reason to think this would work, and it didn’t.
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