Report: Teachers unions quietly spend millions on GOP primaries in 32 states

(The Daily Signal) – Though teachers unions are well known for donating huge sums to Democratic candidates, a closer look at donor data reveals that the unions have spent the last six…

(The Daily Signal) – Though teachers unions are well known for donating huge sums to Democratic candidates, a closer look at donor data reveals that the unions have spent the last six years quietly slipping millions of dollars into the pockets of Republican candidates for state legislatures in contested primary races.

According to databases maintained by Open Secrets and Follow the Money, the largest teachers unions in 32 states have drastically increased donations to Republican state house, assembly, and senate candidates since 2018—donating up to $117,700 to individual candidates in a Republican primary.

In the 2012 and 2016 elections, only 12 states’ teachers unions donated to Republican primary candidates for state legislatures, and of those, only three states’ unions donated average sums of over $3,000 per Republican candidate.

Teachers unions are the largest donor to Democratic campaigns in the United States, with their unions and affiliated political action committees donating $55.3 million to Democratic primary and general candidates in congressional elections in 2022 and $66.5 million to Democratic primary and general congressional and presidential candidates in 2020. In 2022, teachers unions only donated $26,050 total to Republican primary and general congressional candidates.

But in state legislative races, as opposed to congressional ones, things are a bit different, and some Republicans started getting a lot more support from teachers unions starting around 2018—especially those running in districts that typically elect Republicans to office.

For the majority of the states, the local teachers unions are affiliates of one of the two largest national unions, either the National Education Association or the American Federation of Teachers. (As an aside, state affiliates are usually identified by the state’s name followed by a variant of “Education Association,” if connected to the NEA, or “Federation of Teachers,” if connected to the AFT.)

Both unions appear to have adopted a different donation strategy over the last decade: Instead of only investing in Democratic campaigns, they also put money behind the unions’ preferred candidates in Republican primaries.

Fifteen states’ teachers unions have donated at least $3,000 each to Republican candidates in state legislative primaries since 2018, with 16 states’ unions donating less than $3,000 each.

In Alabama, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas, where Republican-sponsored education legislation from school choice reform to parental rights bills have consistently dominated state legislative sessions, unions have pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into certain Republican candidates’ state legislative primaries.

For example, between 2018 and 2024, the Pennsylvania State Teachers Association has contributed $887,854 to Republican state legislative primaries in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania State Education Association has donated $97,000 to Rep. Thomas Mehaffie III, R-Dauphin, and is his second biggest donor. He has received $15,000 so far in 2024 and got $19,000 in 2022 and $62,000 in 2020.

The Ohio Education Association donated $681,740 to Republicans in state legislative primary races between 2018 and 2024. 

Since 2018, the Indiana State Teachers Association has contributed $230,100 to Republican state legislative primaries in Indiana. After incumbent Edward Clere, R-New Albany, was challenged by New Albany anti-union candidate Jackie Bright Grubbs, Clere received a $30,000 donation from the Indiana Political Action Committee for Education, which is funded by the Indiana State Teachers Association.

State Sen. Ron Alting, R-Lafayette, who has received $42,500 from the Indiana State Teachers Association since 2018, has voted against the Senate’s Republican majority on more education and parental rights bills than any other currently serving Republican state senator.

Neither Alting nor Clere responded to The Daily Signal’s request for comment by time of publication, but the story will be updated if they do.

The two largest Texas teachers unions, the Texas State Teachers Association and the Texas Federation of Teachers, and at least two associated PACs have spent $343,239 on Republican primaries between 2018 and 2024.

Zeph Capo, president of the Texas Federation of Teachers, urged teachers in a Mar. 1 letter to vote for 16 Texas House GOP incumbents who have taken union donations and “stood against Gov. [Greg] Abbott’s voucher push last year.” “Voucher” refers to school choice vouchers that allow students to take part of the public funding that would have been spent on them in public schools and use it for private, charter, or homeschool expenses. 

Capo described the GOP primary challengers as “well-monied.” Sixteen House incumbents have received between $3,000 and $25,000 for their primaries so far this year from various PACs and union-associated organizations.

Corey DeAngelis, senior fellow at the American Federation for Children, an organization that advocates for school choice, posted on X that the Texas Federation of Teachers has endorsed 77 candidates in 2024 but has not openly endorsed any Republican candidates, despite contributing to GOP campaigns via the Defend Rural Texas PAC and the Texas AFT Committee on Political Education.

In a statement to The Daily Signal, DeAngelis argued that teachers unions aren’t openly documenting their donations to Republicans because such endorsements are a “kiss of death”:

The Texas affiliate of Randi Weingarten’s teachers union [the American Federation of Teachers] publicly endorsed a bunch of House Republicans in 2022. But this year, although they made 77 public endorsements, none of them were Republicans.

Instead, leaked evidence reveals they are supporting ‘Republicans’ in the primaries who voted against school choice in more private ways, including phone-banking and funding a PAC that contributes to some of them. The radical leftist teachers union is trying to hide their support because they know their public endorsement has become the political kiss of death for Republicans.

The Illinois Education Association spent the second-highest amount on Republican state legislative primaries, only behind Alabama. Between 2018 and 2024, the association spent $2,650,315 on Republican candidates.

A report from public radio station WGLT in Illinois reports that at least $250,000 of this sum is dedicated to “unseating two conservative House Freedom Caucus members in southeastern Illinois,” state Reps. Adam Niemerg, R-Dieterich, and Blaine Wilhour, R-Beecher City.

Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman and professor at the University of Chicago, told WGLT that this move would be “to the advantage of the unions to try and get more moderate Republicans.”

“Even if they’re not going to vote with [the unions] 100% of the time,” Simpson said, “at least their more vocal opponents will be out of the legislature.”

Niemerg’s primary opponent, Jim Acklin, is neither a stranger to state representative primaries nor to teachers union donations. In 2016, Acklin received $63,900 from the Illinois Education Association but lost the primary for Illinois’ House District 102.

Acklin did not respond to The Daily Signal’s request for comment by time of publication, but the story will be updated if he does.

Illinois isn’t the only state where teachers union donations don’t always guarantee a victory. In 2022, the Tennessee Educators Association donated at least $3,000 to 21 Republicans in primaries for the state Senate and House. Nine of those lost their primaries, including the two GOP candidates on whom the Tennessee Educators Association spent the most: Gabriel Fancher and Donnie Hall—both of whom received $12,700 each.

Since 2018, the Tennessee Educators Association has donated $480,597 to Republican primaries in Tennessee.

In some states, teachers unions have thrown so much money into the GOP primary system that they’ve outspent all other Republican donors.

A 2023 report from the Alabama Policy Institute showed that the Alabama Education Association was the largest contributor to Republican state legislative candidates in the 2022-23 election cycle, spending $1,557,500 on Republican House and Senate campaigns. Since 2018, the Alabama Education Association has donated a total of $3,270,938 to Alabama Republicans—the most of any teachers union in the country.

The union has given at least $2.4 million to candidates for the Alabama House of Representatives, and $1.51 million to candidates for the Alabama State Senate in the last decade.

Republicans have a supermajority in the Alabama state Legislature, with 73 of the 105 seats in the Alabama House and 27 of the 35 seats in the Alabama Senate. According to an article from Alabama Today, only 18 Republican representatives and seven senators refused the teachers unions’ donations.

Becky Pringle, president of the NEA, prematurely claimed responsibility for the defeat of an expanded school choice bill in Alabama in 2023 in an early January email to all NEA members, though a version of the bill since passed on Feb. 28. All six of the Republicans who voted with Democrats against the bill received between $5,000 and $25,000 in primary donations from the Alabama Education Association.

Jason Bedrick of The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy told The Daily Signal that these union trends are an obvious and desperate move:

It’s obvious what’s going on here: The unions are terrified that parents are clamoring for more education choice, so they’re doing everything they can to stop it. In red states, or even red areas of blue states, that means supporting candidates who might disagree with them on other issues but who can be relied upon to oppose policies that expand education freedom for families.

While the AFT and NEA still only endorse Democrat candidates in official emails, letters, and voting guides, their donations, and those of their state affiliates, continue to flow into Republican state legislative primaries around the nation at an increasing pace.

Neither the AFT nor NEA responded to a request for comment from The Daily Signal by time of publication.