Federal Officials Find Their Way to Tight Races

By Alyson Klein — October 27, 2006 6 min read
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As the midterm election season moves into the final stretch, education policy leaders in Washington are lending a hand in tight races to bolster their parties’ prospects of gaining—or retaining—a majority of seats in the next Congress.

The top federal lawmakers on education issues have been out on the campaign trail since the summer, holding press events and appearing at fundraisers in competitive contests from Connecticut to California. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, meanwhile, has visited the districts of some Republican incumbents facing tough re-election battles, although most of those appearances are not officially considered campaigning.

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“Key education officials will always be highly prized,” said Larry J. Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. Their visits, which often involve touring a school or meeting with local education leaders, “make for a positive, upbeat event, and everybody feels good because they’re doing something for the children,” he said.

Such events can benefit both GOP and Democratic candidates, Mr. Sabato added.

“For Republicans, it softens them, and for the Democrats, it reinforces an advantage they already had with the teachers’ unions. They all have a reason to do it.”

Unlike with trips by members of Congress, who usually acknowledge they are campaigning, Secretary Spellings’ visits are considered “travel in her official capacity as secretary,” according to Katherine McLane, an Education Department spokeswoman.

But some political observers are skeptical of that explanation.

“It’s an amazing coincidence that her tour coincides with many of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents in Congress,” said Nathan Gonzales, a political analyst for The Rothenberg Report, a Washington-based, nonpartisan newsletter that tracks state and federal elections.

Secretary Spellings is certainly not the first Cabinet member to help out embattled incumbents. Well-placed figures in both Republican and Democratic administrations have historically hit the campaign trail to bolster local media coverage for candidates in tough races, Mr. Gonzales said.

Last week, for instance, Ms. Spellings visited Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, in his Cincinnati district. Rep. Chabot is facing a tough challenge from Democrat John Cranley, a City Council member. Ms. Spellings and Mr. Chabot toured the Cincinnati Zoo Academy, a charter school located at the city’s zoo. In her remarks, the secretary emphasized the need for more rigorous mathematics and science classes to keep the nation economically competitive.

“Math, science, and rigorous coursework are the keys to maintaining America’s legacy of innovation,” she said at the Oct. 23 event. “By combining classroom learning and on-the-job training, the Zoo Academy serves as a lighthouse for others to follow.”

She also visited Columbus, where she announced a $5.5 million Teacher Incentive Fund grant for four districts in the state.

Ms. Spellings also traveled to Indiana last week, where Rep. Chris Chocola, a Republican, is in danger of losing his seat in northern Indiana. The two visited Sycamore Elementary School in Kokomo where they discussed the No Child Left Behind law.

Ms. Spellings recently went to Albuquerque, N.M., to appear with Rep. Heather A. Wilson, a Republican who is in a tight race with state Attorney General Patricia Madrid, the Democratic nominee. Ms. Spellings and Rep. Wilson participated in a roundtable discussion where the secretary plugged the Academic Competitiveness Grants and the National Science and Math Access to Retain Talent, or SMART, grants, which provide extra money to some Pell Grant-eligible students who take rigorous high school courses or major in math or science.

So far this year, Secretary Spellings has appeared at one fundraising event, for Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., in August. He is expected to defeat Democrat Jack Carter, a lawyer and a son of former President Jimmy Carter.

McKeon’s Roundtables

Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, has traveled to more than half a dozen congressional districts in Arizona, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. At many of those stops, he has held roundtable discussions to get input from community members on the No Child Left Behind law, which is scheduled for reauthorization next year.

These events serve “the dual purpose of talking about the Republican vision for [the federal school law] and giving [Rep. McKeon] a chance to listen to as many stakeholders as possible,” said Steve Forde, his spokesman. He said that at these stops, Mr. McKeon has promoted some of the GOP priorities for the law’s reauthorization, including expanded school choice options.

Just last week, Rep. McKeon held such roundtable discussions in Rep. Chabot’s Ohio district, and in an Illinois district, where Republican state Sen. Peter Roskam is vying with Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat and Iraq War veteran, for the suburban Chicago seat left open by the retiring Rep. Henry J. Hyde, a Republican.

Rep. McKeon also stopped by Rep. Geoff Davis’ race in northern Kentucky, where he discussed school safety with local sheriffs and superintendents. Rep. Davis, a vulnerable first-term Republican, sponsored a bill that passed the House in September that would make it easier for teachers to search lockers and student property for weapons and other hazardous materials.

Meanwhile, the ranking Democrat on the House education committee, Rep. George Miller of California, has been emphasizing some major Democratic talking points, including increasing federal financing for college access and boosting appropriations for programs authorized under the No Child Left Behind Act.

That was a major theme of his campaign stop this fall in the Connecticut district where former state Rep. Joe Courtney, a Democrat, is challenging the GOP incumbent, Rep. Rob Simmons. Rep. Miller and Mr. Courtney pointed to shortfalls in federal Title I funding for local districts. They chided Rep. Simmons for supporting a Republican majority that continues to level-fund the program.

College Access

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, has also been to Connecticut, campaigning with, among others, Diane Farrell, a Democratic former Westport selectwoman, who is challenging Rep. Christopher Shays, a Republican.

During such stops, Sen. Kennedy has been promoting his plans to increase college aid, a perennial priority of his, according to Melissa Wagoner, a spokeswoman for the senator.

The Senate panel’s chairman, Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., has stayed close to home, appearing at events for GOP members of his state’s delegation. He has touted the accomplishments of the Senate education panel, including reauthorizing the federal vocational education law, said Ryan Taylor, a spokesman for Sen. Enzi.

Despite these policymakers’ efforts, their appearances with the candidates are considered highly unlikely to be a deciding factor in close contests, observers said.

Mr. Gonzales of The Rothenberg Report said, “I don’t think any of these visits is going to make or break a race.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 2006 edition of Education Week as Federal Officials Find Their Way to Tight Races


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