For Democrats on 2020 trail, DeVos becoming a favorite foe
Sen. Elizabeth Warren calls Betsy DeVos the “worst secretary of education we’ve seen.” Sen. Amy Klobuchar says DeVos “shouldn’t be in her job.” Beto O’Rourke’s take on DeVos: “We can do better.”
In the hunt for a presidential nomination, those Democrats and others are increasingly taking swings at DeVos as a way to energize supporters, jostle for attention and curry favor with the nation’s major teachers unions, which claim millions of voters among their members.
Over the last two months, candidates have gone after DeVos at campaign rallies, during TV appearances and in policy proposals. They have used her name to get a rise out of crowds at events from Las Vegas to Virginia. DeVos herself has become as much of an issue as any education policy, attracting more attention than most other members of President Donald Trump’s administration.
“When you look across the Cabinet, there really isn’t anyone else who has driven engagement at a personal level in the same way she has,” said Mike Spahn, a managing director at Precision Strategies, a political consulting firm that works with Democrats. “She’s the one who draws the most negativity.”
So far at least six candidates have publicly opposed DeVos, often as they offer their own pledges to support public schools and raise pay for teachers across the country.
Warren in particular has framed her friction with DeVos as a cornerstone of her 2020 campaign. In a letter to supporters this month, the Massachusetts senator issued a scathing rebuke of DeVos and promised that, if elected, she will put a former public school teacher in the nation’s top education post.
“I’ll just be blunt: Betsy DeVos is the worst secretary of education we’ve seen,” Warren wrote. “She and her team are up to their eyeballs in conflicts of interest. Instead of championing our students, they protect for-profit colleges that break the law and cheat them.”
Education Department spokeswoman Liz Hill did not immediately provide comment.
Others who have taken jabs include former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. In Fredericksburg, Virginia, O’Rourke recently drew cheers when he asked, “Do you all think that we can do better than Betsy DeVos as secretary of education?” He answered: “I do too.”
While it’s uncommon for an education secretary to become such a focus on the campaign trail, education itself is often an important topic in presidential races. During the 2016 election, Americans in both parties agreed that education was among the most important issues alongside the economy, according to a poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Democratic strategists say it’s politically savvy to tap into the left’s outrage over DeVos and her proposals, especially her support for school choice, her proposed overhaul of federal rules on campus sexual assault, and her efforts to roll back a variety of Obama-era regulations. Some say focusing on DeVos also can help candidates stand out in a crowded field of 23 competitors.
“It’s kind of a goldmine. For Democrats, she is the face of an incompetent administration,” said Scott Ferson, president and CEO of the Liberty Square Group a political strategy firm in Boston. “I think Democrats are looking for somebody who isn’t just going to knock the president every time they speak, and DeVos is a good surrogate for the administration.”
Candidates have taken aim at the secretary as the nation’s two major teachers unions begin deciding who will get their endorsements. Both the National Education Association, which claims 3.2 million members, and the American Federation of Teachers, with 1.7 million, are seen as powerful political forces and recently began vetting candidates.
Both unions are sharp opponents of DeVos and have depicted her as an enemy of public schools. DeVos in turn describes the groups as outdated institutions that put their own interests above students. Speaking to conservatives in California this month, DeVos called teachers unions and other groups “an education cabal that protects the status quo at the expense of just about everyone else.”
Strategists say swinging at DeVos is an easy way to score political points with the labor groups. Warren issued her declaration against DeVos the same day she spoke at a Philadelphia town hall organized by the American Federation of Teachers, which backed Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. The union has hosted other recent events with Klobuchar and Sanders, along with Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio.
DeVos has been a popular target for Democrats since her 2017 confirmation hearing, where she appeared to be flustered by questions from some lawmakers. Online videos of her occasional public gaffes have been used as an organizing tool by her opponents, and Democrats in last year’s midterm elections often depicted DeVos as a villain in their TV campaign ads.
One ad from Democratic supporters in Maryland accused Republican Gov. Larry Hogan of having “similar views” to DeVos, saying it posed “a big problem for Maryland students.” During O’Rourke’s Senate bid in Texas, he released an ad saying his opponent, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, “was the deciding vote in putting Betsy DeVos in charge of our children’s public education.”
Beyond her policies, DeVos is a favorite foe of Democrats because they see her as a symbol of privilege, said Spahn, of the Precision Strategies firm. DeVos and her husband are billionaires who have used their wealth to support school choice efforts in Michigan and across the country.
“The combination of the policies she is articulating and the system she represents has really resonated with people,” Spahn said. “I think that does have to do with the fact that she’s got a yacht or two, and she has funded some very conservative campaigns.”
Some consultants expect DeVos to remain a target for Democrats through the 2020 general election, but some question whether the strategy can yield more than a brief boost. Some previous campaigns have found that focusing on DeVos generated attention online but didn’t always translate into long-term backing, said Larry Huynh, a partner at the consulting firm Trilogy Interactive.
“What people have found is she creates energy,” Huynh said. “But are these people simply anti-DeVos? Can you turn them into pro-candidate X? We have actually seen quite mixed results on that.”
Using DeVos as a foil could also be problematic for some candidates with past ties to DeVos. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., for example, once served with her on the board of Alliance for School Choice, a group that supported school vouchers, and he was the keynote speaker at a 2012 school choice summit hosted by the American Federation of Children, a group DeVos led.
Booker later voted against DeVos’ confirmation by the Senate and said he was “frustrated and deeply saddened” by her appointment.