Democrats seek to tie GOP candidates to Trump, DeVos
Democrats are looking to tie Republicans to President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos ahead of the election in November as the administration’s threat to cut funding to schools unless they resume in-person learning galvanizes teachers’ unions and the left.
The attacks by Democrats come as reopening schools has turned into the latest flashpoint over the administration’s response to the coronavirus, which is expected to dominate elections nationwide, from the race to the White House to the battle for the Senate.
Trump on Wednesday threatened to cut federal funding to schools, breaking with recommendations of health experts as he looks to start reopening the U.S. despite a recent surge in coronavirus in states such as Florida and Arizona. DeVos, who has frequently antagonized the left over her tenure, backed Trump’s push.
Colorado Senate candidate and former Gov. John Hickenlooper was among the Democrats to go on the offensive, calling on Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) to denounce the president’s stance on the issue as the two head for a heated race in the fall.
“Trump’s latest threat to gut funding for schools who don’t comply with his timeline to open is dangerous,” Hickenlooper said in a statement on Thursday. “He should be providing guidelines for the safe and healthy reopening of our schools, not ignoring the advice of scientists and making political threats. And Cory Gardner should be standing up to him, not remaining silent and failing to stand up for Coloradans.”
In Iowa, Democrat Theresa Greenfield, who is challenging Sen. Joni Ernst (R), is also hitting Republicans’ handling of the virus, homing in on her rival ahead of their race in November.
“While Theresa has been demanding swift action from Washington, Senator Ernst was voting for a half-trillion-dollar corporate bailout and against paid sick leave for Iowa workers, and saying the ‘bank is not open’ for relief for Iowa communities,” said Greenfield’s press secretary, Izzi Levy. “Now, with fall just around the corner and coronavirus case counts continuing to rise in Iowa, it’s looking like Ernst’s failed leadership is going to make a return to school harder than ever. She needs to answer for this failure.”
Ernst did not say whether she supported Trump’s push to cut funds to schools that did not open in the fall when asked about it on Thursday.
“I’d have to look at that policy,” the senator said. “I want it [schools reopening] done safely and sensibly, and I think that’s the right way to do it.”
In North Carolina, Democrat Cal Cunningham, who is taking on Sen. Thom Tillis (R), warned against the politicization of reopening schools, calling on Congress to do the work to ensure that schools open safely at the right time.
“In my conversations with local leaders and parents, it’s clear that instead of politicizing this issue, they want Congress to do the work to figure out how we can safely get students back in school, whether that’s in person, online or a combination, so they can keep learning and growing,” Cunningham told The Hill. “That means hearing from folks on the ground about what schools need, and, importantly, funding the PPE [personal protective equipment] and technology our educators and students need to be safe and connected.”
Georgia Democratic Senate candidate Jon Ossoff also called for greater federal leadership during a campaign town hall on Thursday, while in Texas, Democratic candidate MJ Hegar slammed incumbent Sen. John Cornyn (R) for appearing to question whether children can catch and spread the coronavirus when asked about the safety of students going back to school.
Democrats argue that the administration’s stance on the reopening of schools puts parents in a tough situation, forcing them to consider whether to send their children back to school amid the pandemic.
“They [Republican senators] will literally put him above the safety and health of families in their states who are wrestling with an agonizing issue of ‘Do I send my children back to school?’” said Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). “That’s going to drive them down.”
Teachers unions have also gone on the offensive against Republican senators. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the second-largest teachers union in the U.S., released an ad this week calling for greater funding to reopen schools. The ads targeted Republican senators running for reelection in states including Georgia, North Carolina, Maine, Montana and Arizona.
“They’re [Democratic Senate candidates] legitimately going after the Republican incumbents and saying, ‘If schooling is so important to you, why are you on vacation instead of negotiating a stimulus bill so schools have the resources to reopen safely?’” AFT President Randi Weingarten told The Hill.
Some Republicans also acknowledged how Trump’s rhetoric on schools could hit home for parents ahead of the start of the school year in the fall, just months before the general election.
“This strikes at a place where it could cause very real challenges for Republicans,” GOP strategist Doug Heye told The Hill. “Everybody wants the economy up and running, and part of that means that parents need a place for their kids to go, and that’s school and child care.”
“If the president politicizes that, that makes it that much harder for parents who might be on the fence. … It makes it harder for them to support Trump or support Republican candidates because many of them will view that as Trump politicizing their children,” he continued.
Still, Republicans have largely remained silent over the Trump administration’s threat to withhold or cut funding from schools that do not reopen by the fall.
“It’s another example of how Senate Republicans will not hold the president accountable even when he ignores guidelines from public health experts,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Stewart Boss.
Some Republicans, such as Rep. Andy Harris (Md.), have also spoken out in favor of opening schools, warning that being at home may not be as safe as going to school.
“The bottom line is that it’s safe for children to go back to school. It is not safe for them to remain at home,” Harris, who is a doctor, said on Thursday.
Republicans say that Trump’s handling of school openings going forward could ultimately determine how the issue will play down the ballot, though they acknowledged it could backfire on Trump and Republicans.
“Part of that will be how much Trump doubles down on this rhetoric,” Heye said. “The more he does so, the more it will create opportunities for Democratic candidates running for Senate.”