Yesterday, Ed gave an excellent review of the tenuous position Betsy DeVos is in when we come to a vote on her confirmation as the next head of the Department of Education. What might have been another close, but doable vote in the Senate has been placed in jeopardy by the decision of Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski to vote against DeVos, leaving us with the possibility that Vice President Mike Pence might have to break the tie. (This, I believe, would be a first in American history for cabinet appointments.)
So how did these two arrive at that decision? A bit of checking over at the Daily Caller quickly found that both of these senators have been in the good graces of the teachers unions for quite a while now. This is a bit of an aberration when compared to the vast majority of their GOP colleagues.
Murkowski was endorsed by the Alaska chapter of the National Education Association (NEA) in her 2016 campaign for Senate. The group, which represents 12,000 members who work in Alaska’s public schools, praised Murkowski for her “consistent commitment to improving public education.”
Collins, who has served in the Senate since 1997, received an “A” grade from the National Educators Association (NEA)in 2008. The “A” grade is the highest possible, according to the senator’s own press release. It is based on her voting record and “her co-sponsorship of legislation critical to NEA’s identified legislative priorities.” The “A” rating was also the result of “effective behind-the-scenes advocacy.”
Those endorsements and high ratings don’t come cheaply, either. The Free Beacon provides the details of the contributions made to both of them by the unions. This, again, is a rarity. You hardly ever see these unions giving any money to Republicans.
Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska) and Susan Collins (R., Maine) have each benefited from contributions from the National Education Association. Collins received $2,000 from the union in 2002 and 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Murkowski, meanwhile, has received $23,500.
The NEA represents 3 million members, making it the wealthiest and most influential union in the country. The NEA, along with other labor groups like the American Federation of Teachers, has waged a fierce campaign against DeVos, a billionaire philanthropist and school choice activist.
With this information as background, the current situation begins to make more sense. Generally the teachers unions won’t touch a Republican with a ten foot pole (unless it’s to whack them over the head with it). Anyone who supports school choice, promotes charter schools as alternatives, favors vouchers to provide parents with options, opposes automatic teacher tenure or calls for accountability in performance at public schools is an immediate enemy of the unions. They consistently turn their immense fundraising ability against such candidates. The fact that they’re such big fans of Collins and Murkowski was no doubt a factor and it wouldn’t be surprising to find out that they’d come calling as soon as it looked like this vote was close enough to actually block the nomination. Had it been a wider spread and a relatively easy confirmation, both senators could have been allowed to vote in favor to avoid any trouble down the line, but it looks like all the stops were pulled out here.
Some of this is clearly regional and ties in with the history of these senators. Murkowski was never exactly part of the hard Right, having won her last race as a write-in candidate, splitting the vote of the Democrat and Tea Party candidate Joe Miller. Collins has long been popular in Maine, but our northeastern Republicans have always had some curious allies and positions when compared to conservatives in other parts of the country. (Heck, my own recently retired congressman here in New York not only voted for Hillary Clinton, but once told a women’s group that they should donate to Democrats… except in his race, of course.)
If the Democrats somehow manage to stop the DeVos nomination then it will have been a wise investment on the part of the unions. But if Mike Pence puts her over the finish line, both of them will likely have questions to answer further down the road.