Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the U.S. Department of Education, is at the center of a social media maelstrom and has stirred more opposition than any other candidate for secretary in the department’s more than three decade history. Over the past couple of weeks, educators and activists concerned about her appointment have made thousands of calls to congressional offices and organized a spate of protests in Washington D.C., DeVos’ hometown of Holland, Michigan, and elsewhere.
Still, she’ll probably be the next secretary of education. DeVos only needs Republican support to be confirmed. And the GOP controlls the U.S. Senate 52 to 48. That means, if all the Democrats vote against DeVos as expected, three senators would need to flip to defeat her. And that doesn’t look likely, for reasons we explain further below.
There may be an upside to DeVos as education secretary for Democrats, who have already started fundraising off the controversial nominee. More on that below.
How do we know DeVos is likely to get support from all or most Republicans? Just watch her confirmation hearing. The most-talked about parts, of course, are where DeVos appeared confused about federal special education laws, and when she suggested that schools might need guns as protection from “potential grizzlies.”
But the most important moments—in terms of DeVos’ prospects for confirmation—were her exchanges with the two moderate GOP senators most likely to vote against her, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Both are from rural states that aren’t likely to be enthusiastic about vouchers.
Both Collins and Murkowski, however, seemed ready to back DeVos.
Collins told DeVos that she has “no doubt that you care deeply about the education of all children.” And Collins bristled at Sen. Bernie Sanders’, I- Vt., suggestion that DeVos was nominated primarily because of her status as a GOP mega-donor. “Given your life-long work and commitment to education” that suggestion was “really unfair and unwarranted” Collins said.
Collins pressed DeVos on whether states or the feds should be making decisions about vouchers and charter schools, and DeVos told her states should be in the driver’s seat.
Murkowksi, who is one of a handful of senators who received a campaign donation from DeVos but was also endorsed by the National Education Association in her re-election bid—was tougher on the secretary designate. Still, she seemed to be in DeVos’ corner.
Murkowski noted that some teachers in her state are worried that DeVos wouldn’t require public, private, and charter schools to meet the same accountability standards. But she quickly added that DeVos “gave very reassuring answers that you are not seeking to undermine or erode public schools.”
To be sure, DeVos needs every GOP vote she can get. If she’s confirmed, she will likely be the first education secretary without Democratic support. Sen Al Franken, D-Minn., a member of the Senate education committee told MSNBC that every Senate Democrat would vote against her confirmation.
And since the hearing, public education advocates have been turning up the pressure on Collins and Murkowski. The Andrew half of Politics K-12 tried calling Murkowski and Collins on Friday. The voicemail box and phone lines for Collins were all jammed up.
Murkowski, who is one of a handful of senators on the committee that have received campaign donations from DeVos, has also received numerous phone calls, although her office declined to say how many, or whether the Alaska senator was rethinking her stance. Murkowski also tweeted last week that her phone lines had been overwhelmed with callers from “the lower 48", making it difficult for Alaskans to weigh in.
On social media, DeVos opponents are also targeting Sen. Patrick Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania, who has called DeVos a “great pick”, despite opposition from teachers in his state.
And, in addition to an anti-DeVos demonstration across from the U.S. Capitol building Sunday, there were protests last week near the Nashville office of the education committee chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. Alexander has been one of DeVos’ biggest champions. And numerous demonstrators told the Tennessean that Alexander’s voice-mail box was full, making it impossible for them to register complaints about DeVos.
DeVos has also gotten anti-endorsements from groups that don’t typically take positions on the secrtary of education, like the Education Trust and the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
At the same time, though, she’s gotten an outpouring of support from prominent Republicans, and even some Democrats, including former Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. Expect Republicans to bring that up when they vote on her confirmation, likely next month.
A GOP Senate aide said Saturday that he expects DeVos will make it.
“This is all theater for the Dems to prove they are mad,” the aide said. The same aide had previously predicted that DeVos would be confirmed by mid-Februrary.
The Senate education committee is slated to vote on DeVos’ nomination Tuesday.
The silver lining for Democrats: DeVos as education secretary may not be all bad for her opponents. She has become so controversial that Democrats are now fundraising off of her nomination. In an email circulated this weekend, the re-election campaign of Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin—a state Trump unexpectedly won—asked for contributions of $5 or $10 to “strengthen opposition to [DeVos’] confirmation.” Baldwin is expected to face a tough re-election bid in 2018.
Follow us on Twitter at @PoliticsK12.