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Off to the Races: House and Senate Campaigns with Strong Education Angles

We're plunging ahead into this midterm election year, and it's never too early to take stock of the campaign landscape as it relates to education. Here's a quick preview of some races to keep your eyes on. As we progress further into campaign season, I'll dive deeper into some of these races and others that prove particularly important to education policy.

Also, be sure to check out State EdWatch, where my colleague Andrew Ujifusa is keeping tabs on important gubernatorial races and education-related ballot initiatives. And there are still a handful of interesting upcoming primaries and runoffs for the coveted position of state education chief.

Ok, here we go ...

House Races to Watch

Rep. John F. Tierney (D-Mass.): Tierney is expected to defeat his primary challengers come September 9, but will have a more difficult time in his rematch against GOP candidate Richard Tisei, against whom Tierney eked out a win in 2012. Indeed, new numbers released Tuesday from the Emerson College Polling Survey have Tisei leading Tierney, 45 percent to 40 percent. Support for Tierney, who's served Massachusetts' 6th District for nine terms, waned in the last election after his brother-in-law was tied to an illegal offshore gambling operation and his wife pleaded guilty to helping her brother file false tax returns. Tierney serves on the House Education and the Workforce Committee and is the top Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Subcommittee. In addition to being a big proponent of Head Start and backing measures that would expand early-childhood education and direct more federal spending for students with disabilities, Tierney's been particularly active on higher education. Most recently, he teamed up with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., to introduce a bill that would allow student borrowers to refinance their debt at the current, lower interest rate that people with loans on cars and houses are able to get.

Rep. Timothy H. Bishop (D-N.Y.): Bishop is favored in this Long Island race, but Republicans have been pouring millions of dollars into political action committees, or PACs, that have targeted the 1st District of New York for a Republican takeover. Bishop, who was first elected in 2002, faces state Sen. Lee Zeldin, who has no notable education policy experience. Bishop, on the other hand, serves on the Education and the Workforce Committee, and, like Tierney, has been among the strongest advocates for college access and affordability.

Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.): Nevada's 3rd District is split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, so it's no surprise that Heck, who stole the seat away from a Democrat in 2010, is facing a difficult re-election campaign. Heck is up against Erin Bilbray, whose father, former Rep. Brian Bilbray, served for a dozen years as a Republican representing California's 49th and 50th Districts. Heck serves on the Education and the Workforce Committee—though he's not the most active GOP member on education issues since most of his time is consumed by the more powerful Armed Services Committee, where he chairs the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

Senate Races to Watch

Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.): Hagan is in one of the most hotly-contested battles in the Senate, one of just a handful that will decide which party controls the Senate come 2015. Hagan serves on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and chairs the Subcommittee on Children and Families. She led an effort among moderate Democrats to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and has introduced several education-related bills, including a school turnaround measure, a proposal to increase financial literacy for students in grades 6-12, and a bill that aimed at curbing bad actors in the for-profit college industry by banning the use of revenue from federal financial aid for advertising, marketing, and recruitment. She faces North Carolina state Speaker Thom Tillis. The GOP contender's campaign page says nothing about his education agenda, but Democrats and education advocates have been slamming Tillis for pushing through a state budget that directs $500 million less to education than the state originally requested to maintain the status quo. In fact, two major advertising campaigns that ding Tillis for his role in education funding cuts began circulating this month. One, paid for by Senate Majority PAC, says that Tillis's budget, which no Democrat voted for, prevented pay raises for teachers, forced teachers to pay for classroom supplies themselves, and resulted in the elimination of 9,000 classroom jobs. Another from EMILY's List, a PAC that supports pro-choice Democratic candidates, claims the cuts caused crowded classrooms. Hagan and Tillis will spar in three debates this fall, so stay tuned for some potential education policy discussions.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.): Franken's seat is likely safe, but two notable political surveyors (including over at Roll Call and the Cook Political Report) recently rated his campaign as slightly competitive when most Senate watchers had considered his re-election a done deal. Franken, the former "Saturday Night Live" funny man, serves on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. He's cosponsored  a slew of education-related bills, including proposals to expand after-school learning time, increase federal funding for students with disabilities, recruit and train better principals, ensure rural school districts have equitable access to federal grants, to name just a few. In November, Franken will face Mike McFadden, a businessman entirely new to the political arena. Though he doesn't have a policy record from which to draw insight, he's made increasing the quality of education at inner-city schools a central platform in his campaign.

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