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Making Sense of the Midterm Projections

A month out from Election Day, observers are wondering what the new Congress will look like and what that may mean for ESEA reauthorization, the administration's attack on for-profit higher education, and a possible Race to the Top renewal. Over at National Journal last week, the topic drew much discussion. Largely overlooked by those suggesting that Republican gains may lead to a spate of deal-making in education is that the election returns are likely to further polarize Congress.

As Andrew Kelly and I explained in a Teachers College Record Commentary last Friday, analysis of contested House seats shows that the most likely electoral result is the decimation of moderate, purple-state Democrats. As Kelly and I observe: "Going into Labor Day, the Cook Political Report identified 71 seats currently held by Democrats as those most likely to change hands in November... The vast majority [of these Democrats] represent districts that lean Republican in presidential elections... while just sixteen are in districts that lean Democratic. Half represent districts in the red-state territory of the South, Mountain West, or Northern Plains."

We calculate that "more than two-thirds of the moderates in the House Democratic caucus are at risk." What happens if the most vulnerable Democratic seats change hands? Well, if the 42 that are toss-ups or lean right go Republican, the result would deliver control of the House to the GOP and yield a more conventionally liberal, NEA-friendly Democratic caucus. It could also portend heated GOP pushback on "gainful employment" regs, the possibility of investigations into stimulus spending, and new questions about the efficacy of existing education spending.

What's this all mean? We conclude:

"Accomplishing the President's education policy goals post-midterm will require the administration to thread quite the needle. Freshmen Republicans who have run on anti-Obama, anti-Washington themes will be unlikely to support anything that can be regarded as a big federal education bill. Veteran members will be watching their backs in light of the primary challenges that have made news in this cycle. The Republican caucus will likely become increasingly anti-Washington in its messaging, unenthused about wonky promises that Obama's ESEA 'blueprint' will actually dial back the federal role, and positively irate at plans for the feds to be more active in the worst five percent of schools.


Meanwhile, the Democratic caucus will be considerably more homogeneous, liberal, and NEA-friendly. Remaining Democrats will be less supportive of some of Secretary Duncan's favorite reforms, many of which have irked the teacher unions. Moreover, 2010 could well gut the House's klatch of centrist Democrats, the members of the caucus most inclined to work with Republicans and to support administration priorities like charter schooling and performance pay."

If you're interested, you can check out the whole thing here.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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