With an unprecedented number of teachers running for state office during this contentious election season, many candidates will need to make a tough choice: Knowing that their students are watching, are they willing to go negative in their campaign advertisements?
For a lot of teachers, the answer has been no.
“No matter how the campaign goes, I need to be able to look my students in the eyes at the end of all of this,” said Christine Porter Marsh, a high school teacher who is running for Arizona’s Senate as a Democrat. “Being truthful [and] harsh might work, but I’m certainly not going to be resorting to some of the lies I see in some of the campaigns.”
Her goal to stay away from negative ads was challenged when Republicans in the state released a series of Facebook campaign ads that accused Marsh of being an aggressively radical political candidate.
The campaign ads featured an unflattering photo of Marsh, who was the 2016 Arizona Teacher of the Year, with the words “Wrong for AZ.” The ads were funded by the Arizona Senate Victory PAC, which is the political expenditure arm of the state Senate Republican majority.
Marsh said she has mostly been ignoring the ads. She hopes her students will, too: “I would think that they’re outlandish enough that most of my students, even though we don’t talk about those issues in class, they would know me well enough to know I’m not terribly extreme on much of anything.”
For many teachers running for state legislature, their students are never far from their minds. Many say they decided to run in the first place because they wanted to improve the quality of public education for their students.
Education Week has counted nearly 160 current teachers who are running for their state legislatures, and about 100 of those have advanced past the primary elections. An analysis of Facebook political ads for and against a dozen teachers in Education Week’s database found that there were few negative ads on that platform, both from the teachers’ campaigns and their opponents’.
But there are some notable exceptions, including the attack ads against Marsh. And as Election Day nears, teachers who are running in heated state races have to weigh the pros and cons of going negative, and figure out how to position themselves as a better candidate for education than their opponents.
“The research generally suggests that negative advertising tends to reduce evaluations of both the attacker and the person who is attacked,” said Patrick Meirick, the director of the Political Communication Center at the University of Oklahoma. “This might be part of why you see teachers being reluctant to attack, in part because there are norms they’re trying to live up to as teachers—trying to be positive role models for their students.”
Touting Classroom Experience
One way to get around attack ads, Meirick said, is to release comparative ads—ones that pit a candidate’s stance against his or her opponent’s. Many teachers running for office have been using this campaign tactic, touting their own personal experiences in public schools.
In Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, and West Virginia—states that experienced teacher activism in the spring—at least 31 teachers are running in the general election against incumbents who were in office at the time of the teacher walkouts. That’s more than half of the teachers who made it past the primary elections in those states.
In some of those races, teachers’ ads and campaign rhetoric have highlighted how their opponents acted during the walkouts, including comments they made and whether they voted for teacher pay increases.
For instance, this spring, Republican Rep. John Allen, the state House majority leader in Arizona, said teachers might be working second jobs not because they’re financially struggling, but because “they want to pay for a boat. They want a bigger house.”
The comments angered teachers across the state, who were in the middle of a weeklong walkout because of low salaries. Allen is now running against an 8th grade teacher, Jennifer Samuels (along with two other candidates for the two-representative district).
This month, Samuels started running a Facebook ad calling Allen “out of touch.” The ad emphasized Samuels’ firsthand experience in public schools, saying that she would fight for policies to improve education in the state.
“When I was first running, I did hesitate to call him out on that comment for fear of being viewed as attacking him, but the fact of the matter is, he did say that,” said Samuels, a Democrat. “I believe as a teacher it’s my obligation to shed some light on the [truth].”
Samuels, who hasn’t seen any negative ads against her, said she has been buoyed by public support for schools after the teacher walkout.
“For the first time in a really long time, voters in Arizona are paying attention to who’s in office ... and what their values are,” she said.
That renewed focus on public education might be deterring some candidates and political parties from attacking teachers running for office, said Meirick, who is also an associate professor of political communication at the university.
The state legislatures in Oklahoma, Arizona, and West Virginia all passed teacher pay raises this spring. In Oklahoma, raising taxes to fund the teacher pay raise required a three-fourths majority vote—which hadn’t happened for nearly three decades.
“To get to the point where there was enough pressure to increase revenues to support a teacher pay raise, it meant that you had a critical mass among both Democrats and Republicans to support that,” Meirick said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a good look to attack teachers when really both parties are on record supporting teacher pay raises.”
A Heated Battle
Indeed, public support for teachers has been on the upswing in recent months. A recent poll from the journal Education Next found that in the states that experienced widescale teacher activism, 63 percent of respondents favored raising teacher pay. Public support in those six states jumped by 16 percentage points since last year.
Still, this has been a divisive midterm election season, and some of the heat from national campaigns has trickled down to state-level races. In northern Kentucky, voters received phone calls and campaign mailers claiming that Jenny Urie, a high school social studies teacher, wants to take Kentuckians’ guns away and supports open borders. The ad campaign also tied Urie to national Democratic leaders U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton.
None of these claims are true, said Urie, a Democrat who is running for state House against incumbent state Rep. Phillip Pratt. She is a gun owner and supports the Second Amendment, she said, and hasn’t publicly weighed in on any national issues, like border control.
“I really hoped that we could just run an issues-based, clean campaign, but it appears it’s not going to be that way,” she said. “I have no plans on lying about my opponent, [but] ... I now have to make sure voters know the truth about him.”
For example, she said, Pratt is supported by Gov. Matt Bevin, who is unpopular among teachers in the state after making several inflammatory comments during the protests in the spring. And Pratt voted for the unpopular pension changes, as well as legislation to allow charter schools in the state.
In a Facebook political ad that ran last month, Urie defended herself against the attack ads and criticized Pratt’s voting record. She wrote that Pratt “refuses to support” teachers and other workers.
Urie is running for office in the same district where her students live, so she said she knows there’s a risk that they will see the negative ads. Though Urie doesn’t talk about her campaign in the classroom, she has taught her students how to identify reliable sources of information—a solid foundation for making sense of political campaign ads, she said.
“I would hope that they would take some of the lessons we’ve worked hard to teach and use them when they’re finding out the truth for themselves,” Urie said.
There will likely be more negative advertisements in teachers’ campaigns in the few weeks leading up to Election Day, Meirick said.
“The closer you get to crunch time, you’re going to see more negativity coming out,” he said. “[Then], classic campaign theory is you pull back on negativity the last few days before the election so you can leave the voters with a good taste in their mouth.”
Librarian Maya Riser-Kositsky contributed research to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 2018 edition of Education Week as Teachers Weigh Risks of Going Negative in Campaign Ads