Republican leaders are abandoning state Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas in her re-election bid, favoring a former teacher they consider their best shot at keeping the office red.
But some in the Red for Ed camp that took over the Capitol this spring say Douglas is their pick for the GOP nomination – just not for the reasons she hopes voters will turn out for her.
Arizona Republican stalwarts like House Speaker J.D. Mesnard and Senate President Steve Yarbrough snubbed Douglas and instead endorsed Tracy Livingston, a Maricopa County Community College District Governing Board member with more than a decade of public school teaching experience.
They’re hoping she’ll be an antidote to current perceptions of the office and its holder. With the August 28 primary election fast approaching, they’ll soon find out whether voters agree.
Livingston’s war chest may be lacking — according to her most recent campaign finance report, she has less than $3,000 cash on hand – but she has had no trouble attracting the endorsements of better-known conservatives.
In addition to Mesnard and Yarbough, her campaign website boasts the blessings of House Education Committee Chair Rep. Paul Boyer, Senate Education Committee Chair Sen. Sylvia Allen and former Superintendents of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan and Jaime Molera.
“I don’t even want the title. I want the ability to change,” she said, adding that she is the state’s “one chance for a teacher to lead, an actual, real, non-frustrated teacher.”
But the support behind Livingston hasn’t fazed Douglas.
“Endorsements are nothing but favor factories,” Douglas said. “The only endorsement I care about is the endorsement of the citizens of Arizona.”
In her eyes, endorsements are just promises from one politician to another. Specifically, she said both Graham Keegan and Molera are involved in the school choice movement, and their endorsements may signal that they see something “advantageous” in Livingston.
But that may be exactly the kind of language that drove Douglas’ predecessors and others away from her.
Molera did not support Douglas in 2014 either. Instead, he chose to stand behind the Democrat in the general election, his former associate superintendent, David Garcia.
“There was a concern that Diane would become the superintendent that she has become,” Molera said.
He said she hasn’t provided a strong conservative voice within the office, and outside of the Arizona Department of Education, he said she’s been divisive even with other Republicans.
Because Douglas has lived up to those expectations he said he believes the incumbent is vulnerable.
And that’s exactly what some voters on the left are counting on.
While Republicans shy away from their own incumbent, educators are crowdsourcing political insight on platforms like Facebook and devising their own strategies for the race.
Two schools of thought frequently emerge among backers of Arizona Educators United, a coalition of teachers and education support professionals: that Douglas is the best Republican candidate in the primary because educators know what to expect from her if she wins the general election, or that she is the best Republican candidate because she is the most likely to lose to a Democrat.
Those who subscribe to the former say Douglas has the name recognition to pull off a win in November – a result not favored by many participating in candidate forums – but that she poses the least threat to their movement.
“Diane Douglas basically gives us the best opportunity to mitigate the damage that could be done by someone else,” said Ryan Reid, a fifth grade teacher in the Washington Elementary School District. “We kind of know who she is. … So I think from the Republican field, she’s the lesser of two evils.”
Reid is an independent voter who said he will vote for Douglas in the primary, but he intends to vote for the Democrat in November – he favors David Schapira in the Democratic primary. Reid said he could live with Douglas being re-elected, but he doesn’t trust Livingston. He believes her husband, Republican Rep. David Livingston, has not supported public schools, and he expects the same of Tracy Livingston despite her classroom experience.
Tiffany Huisman, a ninth grade teacher in the Phoenix Union High School District, is skeptical of Livingston, too, and the other Republican candidates: Frank Riggs, who served in Congress representing California in the 1990s; Jonathan Gelbart, the former director of development for BASIS Charter Schools; and Bob Branch, a teacher of teachers at two Christian universities.
Huisman said Republican voters have no easy choice, but she’s encouraging votes for Douglas, who she believes will be unable to hold her own against either Schapira or his primary challenger, Kathy Hoffman.
As for Huisman, she’ll be voting in the Democratic primary, though she’s not yet sure for whom.
“A lot of people like to vote with their heart,” she said. “At this point in my career and my life, I want to vote for the person who is going to beat the GOP candidate.”
But while voters like Huisman believe Douglas will make the seat easy pickings for a Democrat, the candidate herself said she is confident she can thwart their plan.
Douglas said she knows she’s the only Republican candidate who can defeat a Democrat in the general election because she already has. She pulled off a win against Garcia in 2014, albeit by a single percentage point.
And she intends to win again by appealing to more than just teachers.
“I wasn’t elected to be the president of the teachers’ union,” she said. “I was elected to be the superintendent of public instruction, to represent the citizens of Arizona as citizens of Arizona.”
The man who was elected to be the president of the state’s largest teachers’ union, Joe Thomas of the Arizona Education Association, said he’s not surprised that some in the Red for Ed movement are being strategic about their votes.
Nor was he surprised that Douglas has not been cast in a flattering light among teachers.
Douglas did not support the six-day strike that began in late April and eventually forced the governor and the Legislature to pass a 20 percent teacher pay raise plan. Douglas later went on to suggest there could be consequences for the thousands of teachers who participated.
More importantly, though, he said she has failed to show she has a “master plan” for public education even after four years in office.
And without that vision for the state, he cannot say Douglas has done her job well.
“You want an advocate out there. You want someone who can work with the Legislature and the governor to paint a vision of a quality public education for all of Arizona,” Thomas said. “And we don’t have one.”
No matter who ultimately claims the Republican nomination, the down-ballot race will struggle to attract the attention and dollars afforded to other contests.
And that’s nothing new.
Consultant Chris Baker said the same trend has been consistent through past election cycles. The office is simply a difficult one to raise money for without an established donor base.
“And if you have an established donor base, you probably ain’t running for superintendent of public instruction,” he said.
You’re running for another office, one that ultimately holds more sway over education policy, like the governor.
As a donor, choosing whether to pump money into the governor’s race versus the superintendent’s race is a no-brainer. One gets you one vote on the Arizona State Board of Education because the superintendent sits on the board, and the other gets you the power to appoint the ten other voting members, Baker said.
“Superintendent of public instruction and mine inspector are in some ways anachronistic offices in the sense that they probably should be appointed,” he said. “But they’re locked into our Constitution, so we’re stuck with them.”
The superintendent’s office is not where the action is on education policy, Baker said. It’s intended to be more of a bully pulpit from which to advocate when necessary and implement the policies in place.
The Arizona Department of Education, over which the superintendent presides, is also responsible for distributing billions of dollars in local, state and federal funding.
In the grand scheme of the elections, Baker said the primary reason Republicans have an interest in holding the seat is to deny the Democrats a statewide post.
But that mentality may prove fatal to the Republican Party come November.
While Livingston has been the recipient of her fellow conservatives’ support thus far, she said the party has failed to capitalize on the energy behind education and control the narrative.
Livingston said she understands that higher offices are the main priority. But she fears victories like Gov. Doug Ducey’s plan to increase teachers’ salaries and the extension of Proposition 301 may be lost in the perception that the party doesn’t care about public education.
“Now is the time for our party to absolutely lead in the discussion of education and moving our classrooms forward,” Livingston said, “and I would have to say that conversation is probably not the focus.”