BILLINGS – When a pair of rural Republicans announced Wednesday they would vote against Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos' confirmation, Democrats needed only one more defection to swing a 'no' vote. It sparked a flurry of speculation about other rural Republicans that could flip.
Don't expect it to be Montana Sen. Steve Daines.
Daines has been an ardent supporter of DeVos, a Detroit billionaire, and said that she endorses his education proposal that would make sweeping changes to federal funding and let schools opt out of federal accountability programs.
That hasn't stopped local education advocates from burning up the phones.
"As a 27-year educator it was excruciatingly painful to listen to this woman, who’s supposedly going to be the face of public education," said Missoula Education Association president Melanie Charlson.
The Missoula union has a postcard-writing campaign; board members wrote letters and the group has taken to social media. In Billings, the local union hasn't launched a formal campaign, but president Rita Wells said that many members have been contacting Montana's senators.
"(DeVos) has absolutely no experience with public education," Wells said.
DeVos' confirmation hearing left many teachers and education groups miffed by her support for easing laws banning guns in schools and her apparent confusion about a federal law for students with disabilities.
DeVos' signature issue is the expansion of school choice she helped drive in Detroit. Many public school advocates have argued that Detriot's system has a checkered record of success and poor accountability.
In rural states, experts have questioned whether programs supporting vouchers or charter schools would have a significant effect; having a small population across a far-flung area often means that there are few choices other than local public schools. Advocates argue that if small schools lose per-student money, it would have a disproportionate effect on the quality of education.
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Sen. Susan Collins from Maine, one of the Republicans who defected Wednesday, specifically questioned DeVos' rural chops.
"I'm concerned that Mrs. Devos' lack of experience with public schools will make it difficult for her to fully understand, identify and assist with those challenges, particularly for our rural schools in states like Maine," a statement from her office said.
No Senate Democrat has said they will vote for DeVos, including Montana's Jon Tester, who blasted her school choice advocacy.
A Daines spokeswoman said that his office has gotten calls urging both support and rejection of DeVos, and that Daines' stance remains unchanged.
A Thursday search of Twitter posts citing Daines' account with DeVos' name showed many tweets urging 'no' votes. A Tester spokesman said his office heard from more than 3,000 people on DeVos, 95 percent of whom urged a 'no' vote.
Critics have also zeroed in on political donations to Republican senators from DeVos and her family; Daines received $5,200 from DeVos in his 2014 campaign, and $41,600 from other members of her family. Daines and other senators, who have received almost $1 million in total from the DeVos family, have brushed off calls to recuse themselves from DeVos' confirmation vote.
DeVos' confirmation still appears likely as no other Republicans have indicated they'll vote against her. A political analysis story from "Education Week" speculated that Republican leadership was unconcerned by the public defections of Collins and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
"Those two senators can please voters in their home states who don't like DeVos, without ultimately sinking DeVos' nomination and facing political backlash from GOP leadership and (President Donald) Trump," it reads.
Democrats protested when Republican leaders limited questioning at DeVos' confirmation hearing; outside of DeVos' school choice advocacy, there's little known about her education policies.
Her apparent support for Daines' accountability opt-out is perhaps her most illuminating statement on the topic; during an exchange with Democrat Sen. Tim Kaine in her hearing, she responded to repeated questions about whether she would support applying the same accountability measures to any school that receives taxpayer money with the phrase, "I support accountability," four times in a row, including when Kaine asked, "Do you not want to answer my question?"