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Teachers’ Unions Reap Little From Election Spending

By Lauren Camera — November 07, 2014 4 min read
Voters cast their ballots on Election Day in front of a stage decoration for an upcoming Veterans Day event at Robious Elementary School in Midlothian, Va.

The two national teachers’ unions spent big on the 2014 midterm elections in a bid to unseat Republican governors and help Democrats hang on to their majority in the U.S. Senate. But by midnight on Election Day, it was clear that their record-setting spending on such efforts as campaign ads, marketing, and boots-on-the-ground operations had largely failed.

“It was hard to see so many good people lose their seats and so many friends of public education not get the opportunity to serve,” said National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia. “My heart is heavy.”

The NEA spent more than $40 million, while the American Federation of Teachers spent more than $20 million. For the first time ever, a majority of their war chests went to state and local races vs. federal races.

Karen White, the political director for the 3 million-member NEA, blamed the outcome on a negative national mood, a result, she said, of Republican-backed state policies that curbed people’s rights to vote and blocked minimum-wage increases.

But President Randi Weingarten of the 1.5 million-member AFT blamed the outcome squarely on the public’s attitude toward President Barack Obama.

“Participating in the political process is never the wrong decision,” Ms. Weingarten said. “That doesn’t change because this was an election that turned into a national referendum on the president.”

Governor’s Races

The defeats in races backed by the unions were most notable at the gubernatorial level, where the AFT and the NEA spent millions of dollars attempting to oust Republicans elected in the 2010 midterm elections during the previous GOP wave. During their tenure, members of that class of governors have cut education aid and rolled back bargaining rights of teachers’ unions.

The NEA Advocacy Fund, the union’s super-PAC, gave $2.9 million through the end of September to the Democratic Governors Association, hoping to affect contests in Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, to name a few. In addition to that spending, the NEA super-PAC also pushed $200,000 to Michigan for All in an effort to unseat Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who ultimately overcame a challenge from Democrat Mark Schauer.

The NEA’s political-spending arm also unleashed a significant ground operation in Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker eventually beat back Democratic challenger Mary Burke.

In that race, the union’s state affiliate handed out more than 40,000 candidate-biography fliers, mailed side-by-side candidate comparisons to 45,000 Wisconsin households, and organized a 15,000-member phone bank. It also sent early absentee-ballot request forms, including a postage-paid envelope, to 15,000 members considered “drop-off” voters, those who tend not to vote in nonpresidential elections.

And in Florida, the AFT gave $500,000 to the Charlie Crist for Florida organization, backing the former governor, a Republican-turned-Democrat who lost his battle to unseat the GOP incumbent, Gov. Rick Scott.

The one gubernatorial victory for the unions occurred in Pennsylvania, where embattled Republican Gov. Tom Corbett lost handily to Democratic challenger Tom Wolf. In that race, the NEA Advocacy Fund directed $580,000 to PA Families First, whose mission was to oust Gov. Corbett, while the AFT’s political action committee gave $450,000 to the Tom Wolf for Governor organization.

“Where the results were based on local issues, as in Pennsylvania, the outcome was different,” Ms. Weingarten said..

Federal Races

The political-spending arms of teachers’ unions also poured millions of dollars into federal races in a failed attempt to help Democrats keep their majority in the Senate.

The AFT, for its part, directed more than $1 million to the Senate Majority PAC, whose main goal was to protect the Democrats’ stronghold. But through the course of the evening, Democrats in states including Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina, and South Dakota fell to Republicans.

In North Carolina, Democratic incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan was overtaken by the Republican challenger, state House Speaker Thom Tillis, in the country’s most expensive race.

The NEA’s super-PAC directed $250,000 to North Carolina Citizens for Protecting Our Schools in an effort to help Sen. Hagan, and $3.6 million to Waterfront Strategies, a media-buying firm that used the money, in part, for TV ads opposing Mr. Tillis.

And in Colorado, Democratic Sen. Mark Udall fell to Republican challenger Rep. Cory Gardner, a race that the NEA poured significant funds into in the last few months of the election cycle. Its 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 was designed to target Hispanic and other Spanish-speaking voters and was part of a larger effort led by a coalition of political action committees that included the SEIU, the Senate Majority PAC, and People for the American Way. They collectively spent more than $1 million backing Sen. Udall through the Nov. 4 election.

A version of this article appeared in the November 12, 2014 edition of Education Week as More Than $60 Million Later, Scant Payoff for Teachers’ Unions

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