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Education Opinion

Election 2010: What to Watch For Tomorrow

By Andrew P. Kelly — November 01, 2010 7 min read
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Note: Andrew Kelly, a research fellow in education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, is guest-posting this week. He can be reached at andrew.kelly@aei.org.

Greetings RHSU readers, and thanks for tuning in! I’m thrilled that Rick invited me to guest blog this week. While I can’t hope to fill his flip flops, I’ll try to add some insights about what the next few days might mean for education policy.

The management informs me that there’s an election tomorrow, so there’s little time for exposition or pleasantries. But before I begin, a few tid-bits about myself: I’m a Ph.D. candidate in American politics, RealClearPolitics is first on my list of Firefox bookmarks (yes, ahead of RHSU), and I can spell Murkowski and Giannoulias without resorting to Google.

Rick and I have already waxed a bit about what these midterm elections might mean for education policy. Our big takeaway: contrary to some of the conventional wisdom, President Obama’s moderate education reform agenda will not benefit from expected Republican victories. First, many of the Democrats that are fighting for their political lives are of the moderate, Blue Dog variety who represent Republican-leaning districts--precisely the ones that are predisposed to support some of the administration’s favorite reforms like charter schooling and merit pay. Second, the Republicans expected to take their places are more likely to favor less federal spending and expansion, dampening the chances of ESEA reauthorization or an extension of Race to the Top.

Now that election week has arrived, it’s time to hone in on a few races and trends that have implications for big-ticket items on the education agenda. This morning I’ll discuss the House and the Senate. Look for ruminations on the state-level races later today and early tomorrow morning.

1. Bennet and Murkowski: “Reports of our political demise are greatly exaggerated.”

If the House goes Republican and the Senate remains (narrowly) Democratic, the upper chamber will become a focal point of the administration’s efforts to craft education policy. But in an increasingly polarized Senate, who will do the bridge-building necessary to get things done on education?

About a month ago, Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), two members of the Senate HELP committee, had been just about written off. Bennet, the former Denver schools superintendent, trailed his opponent Ken Buck (a county district attorney and dyed-in-the-wool Tea Partier) by about 7 points in the polls, and Buck appeared to have hit his stride, routinely polling at around 50 percent to Bennet’s low-to-mid 40s. However, as of last week, Bennet had pulled to within 1 point of Buck.

Murkowski’s political career was on life support long before early October, having lost in the Republican primary to Tea Partier/Palin-ite (and journalist hand-cuffer) Joe Miller. After deciding to mount a write-in campaign, however, Murkowski has stormed back to pull almost even with Miller in statewide polling. The New York Times reminds us that the odds of a write-in victory are long--last accomplished in 1954 when write-in Strom Thurmond won a South Carolina Senate seat--but stranger things have happened.

Which side wins these two races could have serious implications for education policy in the coming session. In particular, the HELP subcommittee on which Bennet and Murkowski currently serve (Children and Families) will play a central role in the reauthorization of ESEA. With the House likely to go Republican, the Senate will be the main staging ground for the administration’s efforts to shape the next installment of the law.

EdWeek’s Alison Klein rightfully points out that Bennet is one of the administration’s “go-to lawmakers” on education. Indeed, way back in 2008 there were whispers that Obama would name then-Superintendent Bennet to be Secretary of Education. But Bennet is important not only because he is a voice for the administration, but because his centrist credentials position him as a key coalition builder between his more polarized colleagues. During his tenure in Denver and in the Senate, he cultivated a reputation as a pragmatic moderate on education (RiShawn Biddle labels him “wishy washy”). Bennet further burnished his centrist credentials when he broke with more liberal Democrats to oppose an early version of the edu-jobs bill that would loot RTT and the Teacher Incentive Fund. “Pragmatic” and “moderate” are two descriptors that have become increasingly rare in the Senate, but will be critical to negotiating an ESEA reauthorization. Combine Bennet’s moderate policy positions with his committee post and ties to the administration, and you end up with a potentially pivotal decision-maker in congressional education debates.

Likewise, Murkowski has been one of the more moderate Republicans in the chamber, which is what got her into primary trouble in the first place. Her center-right position and committee post could present an opportunity to serve as a deal-maker, both within the committee itself and between a Republican House and a narrowly Democratic Senate. Republican gains would also position Murkowski as a pivotal voter for Democrats looking to obtain sixty votes on education legislation, giving her even more leverage in shaping federal ed. policy.

If both Murkowski and Bennet lose, the Senate’s main education policymaking arm would be short two potential bridge-builders, and Secretary Duncan would be without one of his most important allies in Congress.

2. Channeling Bob Dole: Abolishing ED Is Cool Again

Here’s a fun tally to keep tomorrow: how many Republican challengers that wind up winning have expressed support for abolishing the Department of Education? Add that to the sitting House Republicans who voted for such amendments in the late 1990s and you’ll have a sense of how rocky the road may be for education legislation in the coming session.

The liberal blog ThinkProgress pegs the number of Republican candidates in the “Eliminate DOE” camp at 27. I count at least one addition: Martha Roby in the Alabama 2nd, who recently joined these ranks. Let’s say there are 28 of them.

A bunch of these candidates are either likely to win or have a decent chance of doing so. Seven out of the 28 are in races judged to be “toss-ups” by RealClearPolitics, and another seven are classified as “lean/likely Republican.” In other words, anywhere between 25 and 50% of the challengers in this camp have a pretty good shot at a victory. ThinkProgress adds an additional 63 Republican incumbents to these ranks on the basis of prior roll call votes. Suddenly we’ve got about 1/3 of any Republican caucus.

The point is not that ED employees should start looking for a new job if the Republicans win back the House. But this anti-government rhetoric suggests that any effort to ferry significant education legislation through a Republican-led House will be in for a rough go of it. The 2011-2012 Republicans promise to be tough negotiating partners on any proposed expansion of federal spending, and adding these steadfast anti-ED voices will only strengthen their resolve.

So you can score at home, here are challengers who have expressed support (either explicitly during this campaign or gleaned from previous comments or votes) for eliminating ED:

Toss-ups in the “Eliminate ED” camp: Roby (AL-2), Kelly (AZ-8), Heck (NV-03), Gibson (NY-20), Walberg (MI-7), Johnson (OH-6), Fimian (VA-11).

Lean/likely Republican: Harmer (CA-11), Scott (GA-8), Harris (MD-1), West (FL-22), Guinta (NH-1), Chabot (OH-1), Hurt (VA-5).

3. Add Blue Dogs to the Endangered Species List?

When it comes to handicapping the prospects for education policy in the next session, who may win is as important as who may lose. The House Democratic caucus looks like it will lose quite a few of the fiscally conservative members known as “Blue Dogs.”

These Blue Dogs are a key element of the caucus and of any bipartisan work on education. There are currently 54 members of the House Blue Dog caucus (see a list here); of these seats, 36 are rated as either “toss-ups” or “lean/likely Republican.” The ranks of this important group will be thinned considerably in tomorrow’s election. As a result, expect the Democratic caucus in the House to become more homogeneously liberal and potentially less friendly to some elements of the Obama reform agenda.

--Andrew Kelly

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.