The nation’s largest teachers unions blew about $60 million of their members’ money on the disastrous 2014 midterms elections.
The record-breaking campaigns waged by the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, which represent more than 4 million educators nationwide, did little to stem the Republican wave.
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The NEA was the second-largest Super PAC donor of the 2014 cycle, spending more than $22 million to aid Democratic candidates for federal office. The federal spending was on top of an estimated $28 million push at the state and local level. The NEA declined an interview request to discuss the election results and its political strategy moving forward.
The AFT had said it planned on spending $20 million during the 2014 cycle, a ten-fold increase from the $2 million it spent on 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The AFT did not return request for comment. AFT President Randi Weingarten said that Democratic candidates suffered from President Obama’s unpopularity among the electorate.
"It’s clear that many believe this country is on the wrong track and voted for change. Republicans successfully made this a referendum on President Obama’s record and won resoundingly," she said in a post-election press release.
Democrats made education a leading issue in the race. North Carolina Senator-Elect Thom Tillis was hounded throughout the campaign by claims that he cut the state’s education budget as speaker of the GOP-controlled statehouse. He beat incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan while touting his record as a reformer.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder faced similar criticism from the Democratic Governors Association. The DGA spent millions on ads accusing Snyder of "cutting $1 billion from education." School funding actually increased by $134 million during Snyder’s term. He beat Democrat Mark Schauer by about four points. Republican Gov. Scott Walker faced immense opposition from public sector unions en route to an eight-point win in Wisconsin—his third electoral victory in four years in that state.
The NEA also targeted Iowa Republican Joni Ernst for her opposition to the Department of Education. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on airtime in the closing days of the race to boost Democratic lawyer Bruce Braley.
"Can voters really trust Joni Ernst? This is the biggest question as Iowa voters head into the polls on Tuesday. Iowa educators know what is best for students, and when they ask voters to do their homework and check Joni Ernst’s record on education, voters should pay attention," NEA political director Karen White said in a pre-election release.
Ernst beat Brailey by 9 points.
The NEA spent $200,000 on a Spanish language advertisement criticizing Republican Cory Gardner for opposing illegal immigration and briefly mentioned his support for cuts to Pell Grants. Democrats in the state said that the Hispanic vote was crucial to defeating Gardner. Gardner beat incumbent Democrat Sen. Mark Udall by 3 points.
One Colorado substitute teacher, who is not a member of the NEA, expressed surprise at the level of spending in her state.
"I think it's ridiculous that that much money is being wasted on elections when I make more as a server than as a teacher," she said.
Labor watchdogs said that the election showcased the misplaced priorities of union officials, as well as the winning message of balancing budgets and reforming public schools. Rick Berman, executive director of the Center for Union Facts, said that the unions should be focused on participating in education reform, rather than investing so much of their membership’s money on political goals.
"No amount of money that union bosses like Randi Weingarten throw at favored candidates can preserve the failing status quo that protects bad teachers at the expense of their students," he said.
The unions contributed more than just money to Democratic election prospects. NEA president Lily Eskelsen García spent the closing week of the election cycle campaigning for embattled Democrats across the country. Union members deployed new get-out-the-vote technology and contributed thousands of volunteer hours to help push Democrats into office.
"In state after state, educators have been knocking on doors, phone-banking, and delivering hundreds of thousands of hand-written notes to voters for weeks now. They have sent side-by-side comparison cards about candidates. They have organized block walks during the weekends. They have delivered absentee and early ballots to tens of thousands of eligible voters," the union said in a pre-election release.
Berman said that voters sent union leaders a clear message on Tuesday.
"Record campaign spending by teacher unions in an effort to elect anti-reform legislators proved to be a complete waste this election cycle, indicating that the pressing need for school reform has become common knowledge that’s broadly accepted by voters," he said.