Betsy DeVos
Credit: C-SPAN/Screengrab

As a Pennsylvania resident, I was perplexed by Gov. Tom Corbett’s persistent unpopularity which led ultimately to his political defeat when he sought reelection. To be more specific, I saw many reasons for the citizens of the Commonwealth to oppose him, but most of those reasons applied with equal or greater force to Republican governors in Maine, Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin who all managed to maintain better approval numbers and who were all ultimately given a second term in office.

Eventually, through talking to knowledgable people who are more engaged in state-level politics than I am, I came to understand that Corbett had crippled himself in his first year in office by how he handled education. In doing a post-mortem on Corbett’s defeat, G. Terry Madonna and Michael Young made this exact point.

Every governor to seek re-election but one since 1968 had a bad first year, and all won re-election. Milton Shapp, Bob Casey, Tom Ridge and Ed Rendell all had tough first years and low job approval ratings. But each recovered by the end of his second year. Corbett never did. Corbett’s major first-year challenge was the education budget that dominated the press coverage and the polls, ultimately becoming fodder for campaign commercials, and framed subsequent political discussions. Corbett lost control of the narrative that he needlessly cut education spending, resulting in property tax hikes, faculty layoffs and program curtailments.

Democrats are frustrated that they couldn’t stop the confirmation of Betsy DeVos to be the Secretary of Education, but (setting aside the damage she will surely do) this could be a very Pyrrhic victory for the Republicans. There were already big problems with the Democratic Party before the stunning election loss in November. Primary among them was that the party was built to win presidential elections but increasingly incapable of winning control of the House of Representatives or control of most state legislatures. But, just as their blue Electoral College wall unexpectedly crumbled in Pennsylvania and parts of the Midwest, the Republicans’ advantage in supposedly red districts could fall apart over how they handle our public schools.

We’re already seeing formerly dormant citizens erupt into political action over Trump’s immigration policies and attacks on health care. Public education is a potentially potent catalyst, as well, and one that knows no red/blue dividing line.

The Democrats did themselves a favor by unanimously rejecting DeVos and forcing Vice-President Pence to cast the deciding vote. The Republicans now 100% own DeVos and the resulting incompetence and most likely deeply unpopular changes to education that are coming.

Corbett learned the hard way that screwing up public education can undo your political coalition and end your career, and it looks to me like the congressional Republicans just Corbetted themselves.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at