Despite the increased focus by teachers’ unions on state-election spending in the 2014 cycle, union spending on federal races is still significant, especially with control of the U.S. Senate up for grabs.
The National Education Association’s super-PAC, in its most recent Federal Election Commission filings alone—representing spending through the end of September—reported directing $250,000 to North Carolina Citizens for Protecting Our Schools in an effort to help Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan. She is in a hard-fought contest with Republican state Speaker of the House Thom Tillis.
Sen. Hagan has hammered Speaker Tillis for his role in passing a series of state budgets that blocked more than $500 million in education spending, resulting in larger classes and a shortage in school supplies. But Mr. Tillis has touted the fiscal 2015 budget he helped negotiate, which restructured teacher-salary schedules and resulted in pay raises across the board.
In that same race, the super-PAC also spent big on media and advertising this past quarter. In particular, it handed over $3.6 million to Waterfront Strategies, a media-buying firm that serves primarily Democratic-aligned super-PACs and nonprofits, according to the Center for Public Integrity, an independent, Washington-based nonprofit that tracks money in politics. That money was used, in part, for TV ads opposing Mr. Tillis.
The political-spending arms of the American Federation of Teachers, for their part, had directed more than $1 million through Sept. 30 to the Senate Majority PAC, whose main goal is to protect the Democrats’ hold on the Senate.
Democrats for Education Reform, the political action committee meant to help counter the teachers’ unions’ influence on the Democratic Party, also got into the federal game this election cycle.
Earlier this year, DFER launched a new fundraising website and has spent thousands of dollars in support of Sen. Hagan and fellow incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., a charter school champion who is in a tough, three-way race with U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, a Republican, and tea-party-backed candidate Rob Maness. DFER is also supporting incumbent Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a fan of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top grant program, who is expected to defeat Republican Kevin Wade.
Relationships of Mutual Benefit
Teachers’ unions and other education-focused groups aren’t the only ones financially aiding federal candidates who could affect the education policy landscape in years to come. The political-finance machines behind teachers’ unions are especially adept at partnering with other groups to back candidates the partners may support for different reasons.
This election cycle, the NEA and the AFT worked alongside major Democratic groups, like the Senate Majority PAC and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which are focused on maintaining the party’s hold on that chamber.
The teacher groups have partnered with other unions, including the Service Employees International Union, which is pushing candidates on immigration issues, among other priorities. And they’ve teamed up with groups like People for the American Way, which supports various candidates with progressive policy agendas, and EMILY’s List, which typically backs women candidates who support abortion rights.
Such relationships can be particularly effective if a candidate begins losing momentum.
In late September, for example, incumbent U.S. Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, a Democrat who enjoyed a consistent lead in the polls all summer, found himself in a dead heat with U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, his Republican challenger.
The NEA super-PAC put $200,000 into a Spanish-language TV ad buy that ran for two weeks in the Denver and Colorado Springs markets. The spot criticized Rep. Gardner for voting in favor of the federal fiscal 2015 House budget, which would have cut access to the Pell Grant, a college-aid program for low- and middle-income students.
The 30-second spot was designed to target Hispanic and other Spanish-speaking voters. It is part of a larger effort led by a coalition of political action committees, including that of the SEIU, all of which launched an ad focusing on immigration and on the Dream Act for undocumented young immigrants, and the Senate Majority PAC and People for the American Way. They collectively plan to spend more than $1 million backing Sen. Udall through the Nov. 4 election.
A version of this article appeared in the October 29, 2014 edition of Education Week as With U.S. Senate Control at Stake, Money Flows to Key Contests