If Wendy Davis runs for governor, she might come bearing a centrist message strategically set against the ultra-conservative policy and rhetoric emanating from the right edge of the state’s Republican primary. The goal of such a strategy would be to define the general election around perceived failures of Gov. Rick Perry’s administration tying the Republican nominee to the party’s far right.
Education stands out as an issue that appeals to the Democratic base and potentially deflects efforts by Republicans to define her as a liberal extremist who supports “abortion on demand.” But results from the University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll on the issue suggest that education, for all of its surface appeal, presents both Democrats and Republicans with challenges should either side attempt to make it a central issue of the 2014 campaign.
The lure of building a Democratic campaign around education reflects the current environment: Both supporters and opponents of the current educational regime have lamented Texas’ lackluster numbers when it comes to per pupil spending and graduation rates. While Perry has worked hard to focus his and others’ attention on Texas’ economy and the so-called “Texas Miracle,” the public education system is an unhealed sore spot for the party in power. The numbers used to judge the state of the public education system can be complex and seem to point in contradictory directions, but after a decade of Republican hegemony, the public education funding system is once again under review by the courts. In the absence of an easy solution to the funding model, the public discussion on education defaulted to a set of important but unclear side issues in the most recent legislative session — charter schools, testing and testing companies, graduation requirements.
From the perspective of the GOP, Attorney General Greg Abbott, the apparent frontrunner in the Republican race for governor, will either decide or be compelled to engage education on two fronts. The first is promoting a renewed emphasis on vocational education, an approach championed by his primary opponent, Tom Pauken, and several voices in the Legislature. The second likely issue might carry over from the lively race for lieutenant governor, where one candidate, State Sen. Dan Patrick, continues to push for school choice legislation.
Promoting vocational education carries some downsides for a Republican nominee. In June, the UT/TT poll asked whether Texas’ graduation requirements should encourage college attendance, and while 49 percent of voters agreed that they should, there were large racial disparities. Among whites, only 39 percent agreed, but among blacks and Hispanics, 68 and 69 percent, respectively, agreed that graduation requirements should encourage college attendance. Given that Democrats are focusing on mobilizing these key constituencies, especially Hispanics, the Democrats will gladly use any material the Republicans provide to portray their candidate as non-responsive to those priorities. Thus, should Republicans choose to pursue a strategy that seems to appeal only to the most conservative members of their electoral coalition, they may be forfeiting support of an electorate that still broadly perceives primary education as the first step on a path to college. Even Republicans and self-identified conservatives are, at best, ambivalent about what might be construed as “tracking” students into vocational or academic study
On the issue of school choice, there is more room for the Republicans to work. In the February 2013 UT/TT Poll, we found Texans to be supportive of school choice by a margin of 63 percent to 36 percent. Unlike the graduation requirement question, blacks and Hispanics were equally supportive of school choice, and not surprisingly, Republicans overwhelmingly support the idea. For Davis and the Democrats, the trouble is that 68 percent of liberals expressed opposition to school choice. Liberals have long opposed school choice reflexively; it is a kind of litmus test among the white liberals that Davis will count on as the core of her coalition.
One question is whether, and how much, a Republican nominee will distance himself from Perry’s legacy. On education, the governor was recently quoted as saying that the growth in education spending in Texas has been phenomenal. This stands in marked contrast to the thoughts of Texans, 52 percent of whom said in the October 2012 UT/TT poll that the state under-funds education. If Abbott or anyone else takes up the governor’s line, Davis will have plenty of numbers touting the contrary.
Should the candidates choose to fight over issues like vocational education and school choice, they will find themselves walking a tightrope between their bases on the one side and the future electorate on the other. On balance, a campaign focused on education could help Davis step outside of GOP efforts to frame her as a fringe politician. But she would have to navigate unexpected cross currents, such as the level of support for some forms of school choice among Hispanics and African-Americans — not to mention the tendency of many Texans, as we have previously written, to hate the education system but love their own children's schools. The Republican nominee must own his party’s checkered performance on education without ceding the issue to his opponent. While the issue likely plays more favorably for Davis, generating significant support beyond their respective bases won’t be child’s play for either candidate.