Education's Role Uncertain in Congress Races
In four of this year's most closely watched U.S. Senate campaigns, Democrats noted for their records in education are challenging Republican incumbents in Illinois, Mississippi, and North Carolina, and contending for an open seat in Texas.
Two of the challengers, ex-Gov. William F. Winter of Mississippi and State Senator Lloyd Doggett of Texas, have actively promoted statewide reform initiatives; another, Gov. James B. Hunt of North Carolina, chaired a national panel to study the relationship between education and economic growth; and U.S. Representative Paul Simon has sponsored a number of federal education initiatives.
But in contrast to this year's gubernatorial contests, in which education issues are in many cases prominent, the question of whether a record of involvement in education will materially affect Congressional candidates' prospects on Election Day is debated among political analysts.
"More than in any other election year," asserted a National Education Association analyst, "education is an issue that people are looking at--right up there with national defense and the economy." Both the nea and the American Federation of Teachers have provided unprecedented support to Congressional candidates this year. (See Education Week, Oct. 3, 1984.)
But Republican campaign officials insist that defense and economic issues remain paramount. "Education is not a major issue on the minds of the voters this year," said Steven Lotterer, a spokesman for the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. "It is not a make-or-break issue in any Congressional district."
In the particularly close Senate races in North Carolina and Texas, the decisive factor is likely to be which candidates can more effectively get out the vote, Republican and Democratic officials agree. And in these states, the teachers' unions are joining many other liberal and conservative interest groups in mobilizing voters.
In the final days of the election campaign, observers note that the Democrats' initial goal of regaining a majority in the Senate--which they lost in 1980 and which the Republicans now control, 55-45--may be out of reach. The majority party holds all committee and subcommittee chairmanships and can control the flow of legislation to the Senate floor.
Most of the analysts interviewed say that the Republicans are likely to gain seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, but the number depends largely on the outcome of the Presidential race.
One independent campaign consultant, who spoke on the condition that she not be identified, noted that President Reagan's commanding lead in polls in Illinois, North Carolina, and Texas, for example, could amount to an insurmountable handicap for Democratic Senate candidates there.
But, the nea analyst noted, "people don't vote straight Democratic or Republican anymore. ... They ticket-split."
In what polling suggests is a tight race, Representative Simon, the Democratic chairman of the House Subcommittee on Postsecondary Education, a prominent advocate of foreign-language instruction in schools, and author this year of legislation to encourage top students to become teachers, is challenging Republican Senator Charles H. Percy, the three-term incumbent who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
While Representative Simon's "commitment to education" has been "an underriding theme" in his campaign, said James Billon, a Simon spokesman, the candidate will not stress the issue in the final days of the campaign. Rather, he intends to focus on general economic issues, such as taxes and unemployment.
Senator Percy has accused Representative Simon of supporting steep tax increases. And in an effort to improve his standing among conservatives, Senator Percy--who was often viewed as a moderate Republican--has aligned himself with President Reagan, advocating his economic positions, voting for sanctioned school prayer, and campaigning with such conservative political figures as Representative Henry J. Hyde of Illinois.
The Senator was recently endorsed by The Chicago Tribune, and Ceci Cole, communications director of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, last week predicted he will be the victor.
Less partisan analysts, however, call this race a "toss-up."
Last winter, with his term ending, Governor Winter accepted the chancellor's post at the University of Mississippi. Within days, however, he had changed his mind in order to run for the Senate against a strong Republican incumbent, Thad Cochran.
His hesitation was costly to Mr. Winter early in the campaign, those following the campaign say, and he still trails in the polls.
As Governor, Mr. Winter introduced and pushed through the legislature the most dramatic set of spending and reform proposals for the schools in the state's history. That plan, designed to raise Mississippi from the bottom ranks of the states in commitment to schooling, won the Governor widespread accolades, and he has attempted to turn his accomplishments in education to his advantage in the campaign.
Mr. Winter has labeled Senator Cochran an ineffective first-term Senator. Senator Cochran, however, chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, an important post for the rural state.
North Carolina's Senate contest has been the focus of intense national scrutiny for about a year now.
Millions of dollars from scores of interest groups have been pouring into the campaign coffers of the incumbent, Jesse A. Helms, a Republican and a leading conservative voice in the Senate, and Governor Hunt, his Democratic challenger.
The candidates--who are, according to most polls, locked in a virtual dead heat--are flooding television airwaves in the state with commercials in an attempt to sway the remaining undecided voters.
Governor Hunt, chairman of the Education Commission of the States for the 1982-83 term and a prominent figure in the education-reform movement because of his chairmanship of an ecs task force that produced one of the major reports on schooling last year, has the strong support of North Carolina's sizable education community, according to John Dornan, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, an nea affiliate.
According to Edward Cooney of the Child Nutrition Forum, Senator Helms was the the main obstacle to Senate passage of an omnibus child-nutrition bill; he is also a vocal sponsor of school prayer and the conservative "social-issues" agenda.
The outcome, Democratic and Republican analysts agree, depends on which candidate can more effectively turn out his supporters on Nov. 6.
Teachers constitute a solid base of support for Mr. Doggett, the Democratic candidate, according to spokesmen for teachers' groups. Annette S. Cootes, information officer of the Texas State Teachers Association, an nea affiliate, has praised his voting record in the state senate, which, in the association's view, has been "near perfect."
But Mr. Doggett's opposition to organized school prayer has been used as a campaign issue against him by his Republican opponent, U.S. Representative Phil Gramm.
Representative Gramm is, according to polls, a slight favorite for the Senate seat vacated by the retirement of John G. Tower, a Republican.
Representative Gramm has taken positions that square with those of President Reagan, who is expected to win by a large margin in Texas. But the nea analyst, asserting that Mr. Doggett and Mr. Gramm are ideological opposites, claimed that "Texas is one state where people are talking about ticket-splitting."
Representative Gramm leads in the polls, but Mr. Doggett is counting on his organization's ability to get out the vote to swing the election his way, according to a campaign aide. As was true in a recent voter-registration effort, the tsta is heavily involved in the campaign, its leaders say.
Of veteran members of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, one--Jennings Randolph, Democrat of West Virginia--is retiring at the age of 82, but Strom Thurmond, Republican of South Carolina, is favored to win re-election.
Senator Randolph's likely successor is Gov. John D. Rockefeller 4th of West Virginia, who is favored in a race against John R. Raese, a Republican businessman from Morgantown.
Senator Thurmond is expected to defeat his Democratic opponent, Melvin Purvis Jr., a minister.
None of the other 18 members of that key Senate education committee is a candidate for re-election this year, nor are chairman and ranking members of the appropriations subcommittee that controls the Education Department budget.
Among members of the House Education and Labor Committee, Frederick C. Boucher of Virginia, a first-term Democrat, and Ike F. Andrews of North Carolina, a veteran Democrat, appear to have the most difficult races.
Representative Boucher, a moderate who has sought to gain popularity through constituent service, won in 1982 by about 2,000 votes in a traditionally Republican district. He is a slight favorite over his Republican opponent, state Delegate Jefferson Stafford, a conservative who sponsored a bill in the state House this year to deny financial aid to any student at a state-supported college who did not register for the draft. The bill died in the legislature.
Representative Andrews faces William Cobey, a businessman who challenged him in 1982 and nearly won. President Reagan's popularity in North Carolina is said to improve Mr. Cobey's chances this time.