LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – They flocked to the Capitol by the thousands, clad in red and armed with signs critical of pension reform and budget bills and the politicians pushing them.

Now, nearly six months later, dozens of current and former teachers who hope to join Kentucky’s General Assembly are nearing the Nov. 6 finish line.

Many face substantial fundraising disadvantages, in some cases by tens of thousands of dollars. In fact, a few educators hoping to unseat incumbents have seen contributions flow from the political action committees of the Kentucky Education Association and the Jefferson County Teachers Association to their opponents.

Candidates with education backgrounds are also hoping to remind voters why they stormed the statehouse in the first place and keep alive the rhetoric of Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, who attracted national attention after his “guarantee” that children were sexually assaulted while teachers left work to protest in Frankfort.

While Bevin later apologized to those he offended, he took a shot at the state education association in a recent national interview, suggesting that some teachers didn’t know why they were rallying at the Capitol earlier this year.

“I had people there in the Capitol protesting, demanding that a certain bill be struck down and not voted for,” Bevin said in a Sept. 28 interview with The Hill. “It was voted for, and people said, ‘We’re going to remember in November,’ and they were whipped up and outraged and upset. I then vetoed that bill, in essence giving them exactly what they wanted, and five days later they were back protesting and demanding that the veto be overridden.”

“The bottom line is they didn’t know, and when folks asked them why, many of them didn’t know why they were there,” he added. “They were there because the KEA told them to be there.”

Those comments have only fanned the flames for some running for office.

“I was in Frankfort with teachers during the session,” said Lisa Willner, a part-time psychology professor and vice chair of the Jefferson County Board of Education who is the Democratic nominee in the 35th House District, where longtime incumbent Democrat Jim Wayne isn’t seeking reelection.

“The folks I was talking to, the folks I was with, they knew exactly what they were protesting,” Willner said. “They knew that they were protesting the disrespect for our public education system, for our public school teachers and honestly for all our public school employees.”

Others, however, say the governor has a point.

“It's not that he's attacking teachers,” said Donna Lawlor, a retired Spanish teacher and interpreter and Willner’s Republican opponent. “He's pointing out there's been differences of information and misinformation promulgated by KEA and the Democratic Party to try and confuse the situation.”

Candidates with education backgrounds making bids to join the General Assembly – 29 Democrats, four Republicans and six write-in candidates – could make a significant impact with wins Nov. 6.

Most are running for seats in the House of Representatives, and a series of victories could help Democrats regain control after losing it in 2016. Republicans hold a 62-37 majority in the House.

Jockeying for attention

In today’s 24-hour news cycle, six months can feel like an eternity.

That’s about how long it’s been since the end of this year’s legislative session, and teachers running for office face a unique challenge in that regard – reminding voters in their districts exactly why they should care about what happened during this year’s legislative session while competing with the latest national political happenings for their attention during a midterm election cycle in which both houses of Congress could be up for grabs.

Talk of budget cuts to certain education programs, the blistering pace of the pension reform bill or the heated rhetoric during this year’s legislative session likely don’t resonate as much with average voters now compared to more recent events like the contentious battle to confirm Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual assault in 1982, to the Supreme Court, said Les Fugate, a lobbyist and Republican political consultant.

“During the legislative session when things were said, people at my church talked to me about it,” he said. “No one has talked to me about anything that the governor has said about teachers or education in three or four months. That’s a pretty good indication to me that voters are paying attention to other things.”

But Willner says the governor’s comments about teachers during the session come up “a lot” while she’s canvassing the 35th.

“People understand that teachers are not greedy,” she said. “They’re not selfish. They’re not lazy. They’re not unsophisticated. These are caring, highly educated individuals who are doing the best job they can to educate our kids.”

That contrasts with Lawlor’s experience on the campaign trail.

“I have not had anybody say anything negative to me about the governor yet,” she said.

Republicans believe that the intense fight surrounding Kavanaugh’s confirmation will only help galvanize conservative voters this fall, and polling shows that the “blue wave” expected to hit congressional races “might not necessarily be as blue” as some expected, said Dewey Clayton, a political science professor at the University of Louisville.

Other factors could shape the outcome of legislative races for candidates with education experience, Clayton said. For instance, the tight 6th Congressional District race between GOP Rep. Andy Barr and Democrat Amy McGrath might motivate more women to vote in the central Kentucky district, he said.

Most current or former teachers seeking office this year are women, and Clayton said they might be able to gain momentum from the national Me Too movement.

“There are a lot of dynamics in play here, so it’s hard to really get a good read on what actually is happening and who’s going to motivated and who’s not going to be motivated,” he said.

Money talks (but not always)

Most candidates with classroom experience face significant fundraising disadvantages, particularly those facing better-connected incumbents.

That edge has allowed incumbents to get their message to voters easier. Some Republicans have made sure to include the fact that the two-year budget passed this year included a record amount of per-pupil funding for K-12 education in the state in their campaign materials.

“Money will have a huge factor because money can reach a lot of media markets, and the more ads you can throw out and keep throwing out, people begin believing them,” Clayton said. “So that will give clearly the Republicans, more than likely, a slight advantage in that particular realm.”

However, a handful of incumbents had fewer dollars on hand than their opponent, according to the latest Kentucky Registry of Election Finance reports.

Sen. Mike Wilson, a Bowling Green Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, trails Democrat Jeanie Smith, a middle school social studies teacher, by $9,326 in cash on hand. In the 32nd House District, Democrat Tina Bojanowski, a special education teacher, leads Rep. Phil Moffett, R-Louisville, by $25,284 in remaining campaign cash.

And Rep. Daniel Elliott, R-Danville, lagged Lydia Coffey, a retired teacher who is mounting a write-in campaign, by $1,444 in their race.

Still, those Republicans could get a boost from the Republican Party of Kentucky. RPK had nearly $1.8 million left in its coffers at the end of August compared to $266,175 for the Kentucky Democratic Party, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

While incumbents generally have better access to outside money thanks to industry and professional PACs, educators have two key funding sources in the KEA’s and JCTA’s PACs.

But just because a candidate has an education background doesn’t mean they’ll get contributions or help from the Kentucky Educators Political Action Committee, KEA’s PAC, or Better Schools Kentucky, JCTA’s PAC.

In fact, thousands of dollars went to Republican incumbents facing Democratic challengers from the education field.

KREF records show KEPAC and Better Schools Kentucky gave a combined $6,000 to Sens. C.B. Embry, R-Morgantown, and Brandon Smith, R-Hazard, during this election cycle. They received $3,000 each and face opponents with education experience.

In the House, Rep. Steve Riley, R-Glasgow, and Jim Stewart, R-Flat Lick, got $1,000 each from KEPAC this year.

Still, fundraising advantages don’t always portent success.

In this year’s primary election in the 71st House District, for example, high school math teacher Travis Brenda upset House Majority Floor Leader Jonathan Shell, R-Lancaster, by 121 votes to win the Republican nomination despite Shell raising nearly seven times as much campaign cash.

“People think, ‘If we can knock off someone like that, then we can probably knock off a few more as well,’ and so I do think that they’re going to be motivated,” Clayton said.

Reach reporter Kevin Wheatley at 502-585-0838 and kwheatley@wdrb.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevinWheatleyKY.

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