Teachers’ union set to play big part in 2008 campaigns

The National Education Association (NEA) has revamped its political department and is planning the most ambitious election efforts in its history.

The nation’s largest teachers’ union, with 3.2 million members, is looking to the 2008 races with a more ambitious scope.

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It plans to spend $40 million to $50 million on presidential, gubernatorial, congressional and Senate races this year, and is already considering attacks against the presumptive GOP presidential nominee.

“We plan to be very aggressive,” said Reg Weaver, the NEA’s president.

The group is targeting between 25 and 40 House races and nine Senate races, and will not always be supporting Democratic candidates. More than a third of the group’s members are Republicans, and Weaver said it will sometimes be supporting GOP candidates this fall.  

“I made it very clear that we cannot afford to be in the pocket of one party anymore,” Weaver said.

The NEA, which calls itself the nation’s largest professional employee organization, has always been a power politically. That’s reflected in its daily contact with the Democratic presidential contenders, who both want the group’s endorsement. But its efforts had sometimes been simplistic, and Weaver said the group is working to strengthen its political impact to ensure a greater role in the 2008 elections.

In an interview with The Hill, Weaver said the teachers’ union felt like it needed to revamp its political wing to get more involved than it had been in the past. The first step was bringing in Karen White to head the group’s new Campaigns and Elections division, he said.

White, the longtime political director for EMILY’s List, an influential group that raises funds for female candidates, brought a new level of sophistication to the NEA’s political efforts, Weaver said.

Before her arrival, he said, the NEA was unaware that its previous efforts were not as aggressive or as developed as those of other groups.

“We’ve kind of overhauled our operation here,” Weaver said. “A lot of times you don’t know what you don’t know and you don’t know what you’re not getting until someone points it out to you.”{mospagebreak}

Techniques such as microtargeting were foreign to the group, Weaver said.

“There may have been such a thing, but we didn’t know about it,” he said.

But last year, the group used microtargeting in support of Kentucky Democrat Steve Beshear’s successful campaign to unseat then-Gov. Ernie Fletcher. In the end, 83 percent of the state’s NEA members showed up at the polls to vote for Beshear.

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The group spent about $15 million in races last year in Kentucky, Washington and Utah, joining forces in some instances with other labor unions like the AFL-CIO.

The issue that has most energized the group’s membership and drawn alliances with other unions is No Child Left Behind, an anathema to the teachers’ union.

“That sucker has galvanized our members,” Weaver said.

In key battleground states, the group has conducted polling on the issue and found that opposing No Child Left Behind is a winner for its side. In Ohio, for example, 76 percent of the state’s NEA members are “strongly against” the education law, the NEA said.

That battleground focus on one of President Bush’s signature issues indicates that the group also plans to be actively involved with the presidential race.

Weaver said the group, which has not endorsed a candidate, met with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) Monday and plans to meet with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) next week.

Weaver said Clinton talked mostly issues, but she did ask about the union’s endorsement process and told Weaver she would like to have the group’s support.

Weaver said he is holding off before he makes a recommendation to the group about an endorsement.

“I’m going to hold off until I have what I need,” Weaver said.

But Weaver said his staff is in almost daily contact with the two campaigns.

The group has not met with the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), and Weaver said he would be surprised if the senator approached them about a meeting.

Weaver said he doesn’t think McCain wants to be perceived as having a relationship with a group that was once referred to by Rod Paige, former secretary of education for Bush, as a “terrorist organization.”

On top of that, Weaver said McCain’s perceived support for school vouchers, merit-based teacher pay and No Child Left Behind would leave him at odds with the organization.

If and when the group does endorse one of the Democratic candidates in the general election, Weaver promised that it would run aggressive contrast campaigns against McCain in key states.

Danny Diaz, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said the NEA’s efforts targeting the presumptive Republican nominee were hardly a surprise.

“The fact that a liberal trade organization is going to attack the Republican nominee shouldn’t be news to anyone,” Diaz said.