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Oh Brother: What’s in Store for Betsy DeVos if Erik Prince Runs for Senate?

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 18, 2017 4 min read
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Betsy DeVos became U.S. secretary of education in 2017. Could her brother Erik Prince become a U.S. senator in 2019? And what would or could it mean for DeVos?

In recent weeks, DeVos’ younger brother, has reportedly shown interest in running for the Wyoming U.S. Senate seat in 2018 that’s currently held by GOP Sen. John Barrasso. Prince is the founder of Blackwater, a private security firm that drew attention and controversy during the Iraq War, and now runs Frontier Services Group, an aviation, logistics, and security firm. Barrasso was first elected in 2006 and reelected in 2012, although CNN reported last month that Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, put Barrasso on a list of Republicans he wants to defeat in the primary process. Bannon has supposedly supported Prince’s interest in a Senate run.

We reached out to the Education Department, which declined to comment, and to DeVos’ personal representatives about whether she would or could donate to Erik Prince’s campaign if he ran, as well as any other reaction she might have. Here’s the response from Greg McNeilly, who spoke on behalf of DeVos on personal matters: “Betsy does not respond to outlandish hypotheticals churned by ne’er-do-wells of fake news; if the question is does she love her brother, ‘yes’ is the answer.”

Last year, when we wrote about DeVos’ contributions to senators who voted on her nomination, we noted that it doesn’t appear that DeVos would be legally prohibited from making political donations, although she would be barred from soliciting or discouraging such donations.

One thing to keep in mind: DeVos has said she wouldn’t contribute to political campaigns during her time as secretary, although some questioned the value of DeVos’ pledge when her husband’s donations to two Michigan political action committees this year surfaced. Recently, McNeilly told the Detroit News that in the context of DeVos’ promise, people should see a distinction between federal races and “the rest of the world of political giving.” However, both PACS did subsequently contribute to federal as well as state candidates.

DeVos fares relatively badly in opinion polls focused on Trump’s cabinet members. But she might enjoy higher approval ratings in Republican-leaning Wyoming than in many other states. So Prince’s family tie with DeVos might help him, if anything.

Here’s another question that came up for us: How unusual would it be for a cabinet secretary’s close relative to run for national office?

As we do so often when we’re in a pickle, we turned to the Education Week Library team for help to see how often that’s happened in recent years. The list below isn’t exhaustive, but there are a few names you might recognize as you move along.

  • First, there’s Hillary Clinton. She ran for U.S. senator from New York state in 2000, when her husband, Bill Clinton, was president. So he wasn’t a cabinet member, but hey, we’re counting her (and him) any way. She won.
  • Back in 2008, David Leavitt, the brother of Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, ran to be a U.S. representative from Utah. He lost. The seat eventually went to Republican Jason Chaffetz, who left Congress earlier this year.
  • Christie Vilsack, the wife of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, challenged long-time GOP Iowa Rep. Steve King, in 2012. She lost—King retained his seat. You might remember King most recently for introducing a broad private school voucher bill in Congress that drew a fair bit of attention, even though that bill hasn’t gone anywhere.
  • In 1993, Henry Espy ran for a Mississippi congressional seat that previously had been occupied by his brother Mike Espy, who had been appointed agriculture secretary by Bill Clinton. The mayor of Clarksdale, Miss., at the time when he sought Mike Espy’s seat, Henry Espy told the New York Times back in 1993 that, “A state Mississippi’s size with just five congressmen needs all of the clout it can get. My motto is, ‘He who has the tools, let him use them.’” But Henry Espy never got the chance to tool around Congress, because he lost.

    Mike Espy wouldn’t stay in Clinton’s cabinet for long: He resigned in 1994 after allegations of getting improper favors from corporations. Henry Espy, however, served as Clarksdale’s mayor for 28 years and left the office in 2013.

So if you discount Hillary Clinton, the track record for cabinet secretaries’ relatives jumping into recent federal elections doesn’t look so hot.

Prince’s views on education aren’t clear. He attended Hillsdale College, a private college in Michigan whose president, Larry Arnn, was briefly mentioned as a possible Trump nominee for education secretary before DeVos got picked. According to a Grand Rapids Press story cited by Business Insider and Newsweek, Prince said he became disillusioned with Washington while working as a White House intern under President George H.W. Bush because he saw “homosexual groups being invited in.”

Photo of Erik Prince by Gerry Broome/AP-File

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Holly Peele, Library Director and Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.