Countdown to EDlection2018, California & beyond: As midterms approach, here’s what new polls show in 16 key races with big stakes for schools
Carolyn Phenicie and Kevin Mahnken | October 31, 2018
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It has been a whiplash two years in American politics, and that has trickled down to education policy, from the controversial appointment of Betsy DeVos as education secretary to heated debates about school safety that have arisen in the wake of several mass school shootings.
Now, with midterm elections only days away, it’s time for voters to weigh those policy choices and decide whether they’d like to make a change.
On many fronts, the nation remains as divided as when President Trump unexpectedly won the 2016 election. Politicos have for months predicted a “Blue Wave” that will elect Democrats to Congress, governor’s mansions and statehouses across the country, but many polls remain very close.
For edu-watchers, the midterms could signal a big change in federal education policy in at least one chamber of Congress. At the state level, a blue wave could impact the shape of everything from funding to education reform.
A change seems increasingly likely in Congress, as Democrats look to retake control of the House. They need to gain 23 seats to win the majority; the statisticians at the usually-reliable website FiveThirtyEight think they’ll net about 40.
An average of the so-called generic ballot, which asks voters broadly whether they prefer Democrats or Republicans without considering specific candidates, gives Democrats an 8.3 percentage point lead in the House as of Oct. 31. A Democratic majority would mean a 180-degree shift on education policy, starting with tough oversight of the Education Department.
Though the House looks good for the Democrats, their onetime hope of retaking the Senate have slipped, based on key battleground polls released in the last few days.
Democratic incumbents in three pivotal seats — Joe Donnelly in Indiana, Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Bill Nelson in Florida — got disappointing poll results. Democrats absolutely must keep these three seats to have any chance of retaking control.
The federal races are taking up most of the national media spotlight, but for the education world, state races will have a bigger impact on K-12 policy.
Here in California, Marshall Tuck, who narrowly lost his bid for state superintendent in 2014, is running 12 points ahead of competitor Tony Thurmond, according to an Oct. 31 poll from UC Berkeley. Tuck is a former charter school leader who has gotten financial backing from big donors in the education reform camp, while Thurmond has the support of unions and has said a pause on new charters might be needed. Both Tuck and Thurmond are Democrats; California’s primary system elevates the top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation. The race, one of the most expensive in the country for any office, showcases the crack that has emerged among California Democrats on education policy, particularly charters. That same split was evident in the primary for the governor’s race, when union-backed Lt. Gov Gavin Newsom beat reform-aligned Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor of LA.
• Read more: California’s campaign for state superintendent costs more than most Senate races. Here’s why
In states like Colorado, Michigan and Nevada, the outcomes of the midterms could have ramifications for their education reform agendas; in others, like Iowa, Kansas and Oregon, it may signal big changes for school funding. And across the country, it’s an important election not just for education, but educators: scores of teachers are running for office, including a former National Teacher of the Year, up for a congressional race in Connecticut, and Wisconsin’s education chief, who is making a run at governor.
Here’s what the newest polling shows about some of the country’s top races:
Dems look to make gains in Midwest
WISCONSIN: Collectively, Midwestern states make up the most promising region in the country for Democrats, who could win as many as five governor’s races across Big 10 country. Wisconsin, where incumbent governor and liberal scourge Scott Walker is running for a rare third term, could provide Democrats their sweetest victory of all on Election night.
After dealing decisive blows against teachers unions and slashing public school funding in his first few years in office, Walker now finds himself locked in a tight race with State Superintendent Tony Evers.
• Read more from The 74: Scott Walker Crushed Wisconsin’s Teachers Union. Can He Win a Third Term Against Its Superintendent of Schools?
Some doubted that the genial Evers could keep pace with Walker, a fierce campaigner and past victor of three statewide races. But polls give the state’s top education authority a narrow edge heading into the final week. A Thompson/Reuters poll released Oct. 24 pointed to a three-point Evers advantage, while a Marist/NBC survey released earlier in the month found Evers leading by eight points. Local experts believe that the competition could be much closer, however.
“Frankly, I don’t buy that — this isn’t going to be an eight- or ten-point election,” Alan Borsuk, a longtime Wisconsin observer for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, told The 74 in an interview.
Initially a skeptic of Evers’s chances, Borsuk says that he has been impressed by the Democrat’s willingness to trade blows with Walker.
While the contest has elevated a statewide schools official in a year when education funding has loomed large as a campaign issue, Borsuk adds that the fate of Wisconsin schools hasn’t dominated debates between the candidates.
“It just doesn’t motivate too many people — but for the people it motivates, it is a really core divide between Walker being allied with the private schools and the voucher programs, and Evers being allied with public schools and the unions,” he said.“So for a fairly decent-sized group of voters, that’s a really easy identification tag.”
MICHIGAN: In neighboring Michigan, Democrats have long held an advantage in the governor’s race. They may even stand to flip one or both houses of the state legislature, which would allow them to undo some of the choice-oriented education reforms favored by native Michigander DeVos.
Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, a former state senator, leads Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette by an average of 8.2 points, according to polling aggregator RealClearPolitics. Recent surveys conducted by Michigan Information Research Service (MIRS) and the Detroit Free Press have narrowed that edge to five points, but leading forecaster Cook Political Report still rates the race as “Lean Democrat,” indicating a clear edge for Whitmer.
Though the race has largely been a referendum on Republicans like incumbent Governor Rick Snyder and President Donald Trump, a contentious debate over Michigan’s charter schools and education finance has also developed over the last few years. Whitmer has pledged to introduce new restrictions on the state’s lightly regulated charter sector, while Schuette has defended DeVos’s record as an education activist in the state.
OHIO: Ohio’s gubernatorial race might be the tightest in the country. Democrat and former state Attorney General Richard Cordray has spent months locked in a dead heat with Attorney General Mike DeWine, who unseated him in 2010. The ultimate bellwether state shifted from supporting George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 to Obama in 2008 and 2012, only to pivot back Trump two years ago. At the state level, however, it has been much more consistently Republican, electing just one Democratic governor since 1986.
As in Michigan, the state’s embattled charter sector has played an outsized role in the campaign. The January closure of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), a huge online charter school, amid allegations of fraud has turned a spotlight on Republicans like DeWine, who have accepted significant donations from the organization in the past.
Recent developments have done little to separate the candidates: A poll from Emerson College released on Monday gave Cordray a three-point lead, including a sizeable advantage among female voters. Baldwin Wallace University countered on Tuesday with its own survey pointing to a near tie, with DeWine leading Cordray by just .6 points.
SOUTH DAKOTA: South Dakota’s gubernatorial race showcases both the potential and the limits of elevated Democratic energy in 2018. While the state hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since 1974, Senate Minority Leader Billie Sutton is tied with Republican Congresswoman Kristi Noem in the most recent poll from the Argus Leader, the state’s largest newspaper.
Since small states like South Dakota are seldom polled, we may not have a truly accurate read on the race until Election Day. A Sutton victory would be a sign of one of the best Democratic midterms in years — but the newly-elected governor would still be hemmed in by the overwhelmingly conservative tilt of the state. Republicans will almost undoubtedly hold veto-proof majorities in both the state Senate and House.
“Republicans could govern without the guy,” David Wiltse, a professor of politics at South Dakota State University, said of Sutton. “I would be surprised if there was any huge, substantive difference in terms of legislative outcomes if Sutton does win. The legislature will still be in the driver’s seat in terms of the agenda.”
That means that Sutton won’t be able to create a state-funded pre-K option — South Dakota is one of just six states nationwide that has none — without serious buy-in from the state GOP. His proposals to refund tuition costs to teachers working in underserved areas and fund new college scholarships would likely sit idle as well.
IOWA: Democrat Fred Hubbell seems to have a small lead, just 2 points, over incumbent Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds in Iowa, though polling is sparse and the last one was conducted in mid-September, practically an eternity given the frequency of polling in other tight races across the country. Most independent handicappers call the race a toss-up.
Education is a top issue, with 47 percent citing it as one of the top two concerns for the next governor to address, according to that same poll. The main issue is funding, with Democrats saying there isn’t enough, and Republicans saying funding is at record highs, the Des Moines Register reported.
Tossup races across the South
FLORIDA: In the South, Democrats are making solid runs at governor’s mansions they haven’t held in decades, though the races are widely considered tossups. Florida, for instance, could see its first Democratic governor this millennium, polls show, though the race is still close.
Democrat Andrew Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, was ahead by just one point against former Rep. Ron DeSantis in a CBS News/YouGov poll conducted Oct. 23 to 26, with five percent of those surveyed still undecided.
“We may not know on that one for a while on Tuesday night,” Carol Weissert, chair of civic education and political science at Florida State University, told The 74. (The last two governor’s races were decided by about a point each, as were the state’s 2012 and 2016 presidential contests.)
Another poll, conducted by the New York Times and Siena College around the same time, found Gillum with a larger lead, about 5 points. In both, Gillum holds sizeable leads with traditional Democratic constituencies: women, young people, and black and Hispanic voters.
Gillum needs African Americans, young people, and voters unaffiliated with either party to turn out, she said. Enthusiasm around Gillum’s campaign could also boost Nelson, the Senate incumbent, and down-ballot races, including state legislature.
• Read more: The Frontrunners for Florida Governor Are Still a Question Mark But The Many Education Issues That Will Play Big in the Race Are Not
It would be one of the taller orders for Democrats this cycle, but control over the Florida Senate is within reach if the party has a great night and captures five seats. That would certainly put him in better negotiating position as a newly elected governor.
Republicans have their own draw, with popular Republican Gov. Rick Scott running in a tight race for U.S. Senate. That should bring plenty of Republicans to the polls to support down-ballot candidates as well.
On education, Gillum wants to raise teacher salaries, with a minimum starting salary of $50,000, paid for by raising corporate income taxes and legalizing and taxing marijuana, the Miami Herald reported. He is skeptical of school choice, but said in a recent debate that he wouldn’t defund charter schools.
DeSantis has called for a mandate that 80 percent of education spending end up in the classroom, as well as a boost in spending for the state’s tax credit scholarship program.
GEORGIA: Democrat Stacey Abrams, the former House minority leader, lagged by just two points against Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp, according to an NBC News/Marist poll released last week. But a Fox 5-Atlanta poll released Tuesday found Abrams narrowly leading.
Abrams, who would become the nation’s first black female governor if elected, has joined Texas Senate Candidate Beto O’Rourke and fellow gubernatorial nominee Gillum as one of the most buzzed-about Democratic newcomers this cycle. The national spotlight appears to have benefited her campaign, helping her raise millions of dollars both inside and outside the state.
Still, any Democrat would face an uphill battle in Georgia, which last elected a Democratic governor in 1998. Recently, the race has gained even more national headlines amid allegations that Kemp — Georgia’s top election official — has purged thousands of disproportionately black voters from the rolls in the months leading up to the election.
The candidates have both offered big-ticket education items that might be difficult to enact: Kemp has proposed a permanent, $5,000 raise in teacher salaries, while Abrams would allocate roughly $300 million for child care subsidies to needy families. Both have also clashed on whether to expand Georgia’s tax credit scholarship plan, which Abrams has dismissed as a “backdoor voucher program.”
Independents Shake Up Races
MAINE: In two governor’s contests, the sudden departure of independents has scrambled the races. The latest poll in Maine finds Democrat Janet Mills ahead of her GOP challenger, Shawn Moody, by eight and a half points as they vie to replace Republican Gov. Paul LePage.
The contours of the race changed Monday, when independent Alan Caron dropped out of the race, throwing his support to Mills. Caron didn’t have much support in the poll, just over 2 percent. Another independent, Terry Hayes, remains in the race, and 9.5 percent of voters were undecided.
On education issues, both Mills and Moody back raising teacher pay, with a minimum salary of $40,000. Both say the state’s school finance system needs a clean-up. Mills said she’d work to meet a voter-imposed mandate that the state fund 55 percent of K-12 education costs. Moody suggested looking at duplicative school programs and administrative costs, the Press Herald reported.
Mills has also said she wouldn’t lift the state’s current 10-charter cap, and doesn’t back a currently-stalled A-F school grading system. Moody supports lifting the cap and is a “maybe” on the school rating system, the Press Herald reported.
ALASKA: The race in Alaska, like Maine, was scrambled in mid-October when incumbent Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, dropped out of the race. Walker threw his support behind Mark Begich, the Democratic candidate and a former U.S. senator.
Walker’s name will still appear on the ballot. The latest poll, conducted Oct. 19-22, finds Republican Mike Dunleavy, a former state senator, ahead of Begich by 4.6 points. (Importantly, Walker hadn’t dropped out of the race when pollsters began calling voters; they were asked about the race given the likelihood that he’d throw his support to Begich, but it wasn’t yet official.)
After years of state coffers flush from robust taxes on oil production, the price of oil has dropped in recent years, forcing belt tightening in Alaska and several years of flat education spending. Walker and Begich also sparred over school choice in a recent debate.
Out West, Democrats look to hold their ground
COLORADO: In the Western part of the country, where Democrats have long held substantial electoral power, they’re looking to maintain their control of key offices. Colorado has become an exemplar of center-left education reform over the past few decades, embracing charter schools and overhauling teacher evaluations without turning to private school vouchers or anti-union measures. Rep. Jared Polis is favored to become the state’s third consecutive Democratic governor in his race against Republican Walker Stapleton.
“Nothing I’ve seen suggests his lead is really in danger,” said Seth Masket, a political science professor at the University of Denver.
A poll from the University of Colorado Boulder, conducted in mid-October, found Polis ahead 12 points. That’s in keeping with three other polls this fall that found Polis ahead by anywhere between 7 and 11 percentage points. Unlike some other polls, where women are skewing heavily Democratic, the UC Boulder poll doesn’t show a big gender gap.
Though Trump has loomed over many other races, the Colorado governor’s race has focused on local issues, including transportation, water issues and education funding, Masket said.
Polis’s education bona fides could help keep that center-left ed reform streak alive. He founded a charter school and backs many education reforms, and defeated a union-backed candidate in the Democratic primary. In the campaign, he has called for funding universal pre-K and full-day kindergarten and changes to the state’s school funding formula. Stapleton’s platform calls for cutting administrative spending and creating tax-free accounts for parents to save for educational expenses.
• Read more: ‘We Just Haven’t Seen a Race Like This’: How Education — and Differing Visions of School Reform — Has Become a Key Issue for Democrats in Colorado’s Governor Primary
Polis will have particular latitude over the education agenda if Democrats can regain control over the state Senate, currently held by Republicans with just a two-seat majority. Some Colorado education observers have said that divided government has forced the parties to pursue a moderate course, and that unified Democratic control could mean an end to the detente around charter-district cooperation.
OREGON: Democratic incumbent Kate Brown is in an unexpectedly tight race for re-election, given the liberal bent of her state. The latest poll, released Tuesday, gave her a 5 point lead, though surveys since the summer have bounced wildly, from giving her as much as a 10 point lead to showing her opponent, Republican Knute Buehler, ahead by 1 point.
The state’s pension system, including retirement for teachers, has become a top issue as costs spiral for school districts and local governments, the Oregonian reported. Buehler has listed specific changes he’d make, and vowed not to sign any legislation until lawmakers address the pension crisis. Brown has defended her record, and backed a small employee cost-sharing proposal earlier this year.
Keeping Tabs on New England
CONNECTICUT: Former National Teacher of the Year Jahana Hayes, the most prominent of a wave of educators running for office this fall, looks poised for victory in the race for Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District. A gifted candidate who defeated a vastly more experienced competitor in the Democratic primary, Hayes has attracted support from party luminaries like U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy and former Vice President Joe Biden.
• Read more: Troubled Student, Teen Mom, Teacher of the Year: Is Connecticut Congressional Candidate Jahana Hayes the New Face of the Democratic Party?
Known locally as the Fightin’ Fifth, the district is considered somewhat competitive territory in cycles when Republicans are favored — but that’s not 2018. A recent poll from Sacred Heart University found that nearly 49 percent of Connecticut’s likely voters plan to support their Democratic congressional candidate, compared with just 34 percent who intend to support Republicans.
NEW HAMPSHIRE: In New Hampshire, incumbent Republican Gov. Chris Sununu — the latest scion of New England’s quietest political dynasty — has led Democrat Molly Kelly in the polls for months, though his lead seems to be narrowing as Election Day nears. And while he’s still favored for reelection, Sununu’s agenda may be hamstrung: Both Houses of the state legislature could flip from Republican to Democratic control, according to noted race handicapper Louis Jacobson.
The GOP currently holds a four-seat majority in the state Senate, and a whopping 44-seat edge in the House, but New Hampshire has seen some of wildest swings between party control in recent years, and disapproval of Trump is running high in the region.
Consequently, New Hampshire could be the rare state that flips from unified Republican control to unified Democratic control, depending on whether Kelly finishes strong. That could fundamentally alter the trajectory of school choice in the state, as the governor has given his backing to an education savings account initiative that has stalled in the legislature. Kelly is running hard against the proposal, while Sununu says he’ll give it another go if he wins a second term.
With Democrats and Republicans both ready to make their voices heard, one thing is certain: Voters throughout the nation will swamp the polls next week in numbers that have seldom been seen in a midterm election.
University of Florida professor Michael McDonald, who keeps a meticulous database of U.S. election information, recently told NPR that he believes turnout could reach 50 percent of all eligible voters this year. That may sound unimpressive, especially in a news environment so saturated with election coverage, but it would be the highest rate in over 50 years.
This article was published in partnership with The 74. Sign up for The 74’s newsletter here.