This spring, Republican governors and legislatures across the country faced major backlash from teachers protesting the neglect and defunding of public education. Work stoppages, teacher marches, and other demonstrations of populist anger appeared in the reddest of red states, notably West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Arizona, notorious for low salaries and needy schools. Although the strikes seemed to come out of nowhere, they cannot be cast aside as random incidents. They clearly expressed long-simmering frustrations about politicians’ neglect of their official responsibilities and carry warnings for Republicans who downplay the need for active government.
Significantly, the teachers have been effective in projecting a compelling message that has captured the popular imagination. Tales of tattered textbooks, crumbling facilities, inadequate programs, and teachers forced to get supplementary jobs or leave for neighboring states with better salaries reinforce a narrative of Republican policy failure.
The message is strongly progressive, critiquing without apology the starve-the-government, coddle-the-wealthy approach replicated in Republican-dominated statehouses around the country. Not only should government commit itself to providing quality education for future generations, say the teachers, but they should do so by raising taxes on those who can afford them rather than through regressive taxes that overburden average citizens. In states dominated by fossil fuel extractors, such as West Virginia and Oklahoma, they argue that government should exact levies, or severance taxes, on non-replaceable resources taken out of the ground and invest the proceeds in funds that benefit the population and prepare for the future.
The full political repercussions of the protests will not be known until after the completion of state primaries, still ongoing, and the upcoming November elections. But already there are signs that should encourage Democrats in these states, in spite of the fact that the legislatures there are now dominated by Republicans, often by more than two to one majorities, and will not easily be flipped in a single election cycle. Still, a wave of new faces in November armed with a strong message could seriously change the political dynamic and open the door to progressive options in the future.
At the local political level, there has been a surge of new legislative candidates registering in all four states. Many of them, unsurprisingly, are teachers (forty, for instance, in Kentucky alone and “dozens” in Arizona) hoping to displace incumbents. One teacher and another union supporter, both disillusioned Republicans, have already chalked up impressive upsets in early primaries: Travis Benda, who teaches math, toppled Kentucky House Majority Leader Jonathan Shell, a politician once considered untouchable, and Bill Hamilton easily defeated union-baiter Senator Robert Karnes in West Virginia.
State-wide congressional and gubernatorial campaigns could also be affected by teacher energy in November. A governor’s race in Arizona, with Republican incumbent Doug Ducey on the ballot, could spark a strong Democratic challenge because of the governor’s foot-dragging on educational funding in response to teacher demands. Ducey was initially hostile if not insulting to the strikers. Two close U.S. Senate races are also on the line in Arizona and West Virginia, along with a newly competitive Congressional race in Kentucky’s District 6 around Lexington with the entry of Democratic candidate Amy McGrath.
But the most exciting campaign is no doubt Democrat Richard Ojeda‘s fight for West Virginia’s now vacant seat in the 3rd Congressional district. Ojeda is a firm progressive, ex-marine, and man of the people, with tattoos to boot. His fiery populism foreshadowed in some respects the teacher strike itself, which he predicted back in January and coaxed along in its early going. The seat, covering the heart of coal country in Mingo County and the southern reaches of the state would be a sweet catch for the Dems if Ojeda should win. Trump carried it by a full 50 percentage points in 2016. Yet at this juncture, Ojeda’s charisma and oratorical skills have captured the people’s attention, and he goes into the November elections with over twice the primary votes of any single candidate in either party.
Progressive Democrats should stay tuned. Races like Ojeda’s provide a model of the kind of candidates needing our support in the brave new era of Trump and a clinic in how to conduct an authentic populist campaign.