Fueled by concerns that it could be a close race, Washington State Democrats and their key funders, including the statewide teachers union, are staging a last-minute effort to push incumbent schools chief Chris Reykdal into the limelight, injecting more than $750,000 into the race to boost his campaign in the past month.
In the final stretch of a nonpartisan race that has turned bitterly ideological, Governor Jay Inslee and Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal this week criticized Reykdal challenger Maia Espinoza, questioning her credibility and the accuracy of her statements on the campaign trail. They described her as a Trump Republican and likened her to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos because of her support for expanding school voucher programs — something a state schools chief does not have the legal power to enact alone.
Espinoza told media outlets on Monday that she has “no support” from Trump or DeVos but is a firm supporter of school choice.
Last week, the state’s Democratic Party donated $105,000 to Reykdal’s campaign, and a political action committee formed in September has spent three-quarters of a million dollars on digital and mail advertising in support of the campaign. The PAC, called Strong Public Schools, is mostly funded by the Washington Education Association union, which represents teachers unions in 300 school districts.
With nearly $352,000 in direct contributions and $702,000 in independent support, Reykdal’s campaign has attracted more money than any other campaign for state schools chief since at least 2008. So far, he has spent about $269,000, putting him in second place for spending since at least 2008. Terry Bergeson, an incumbent who ran unsuccessfully for a fourth term against Reykdal’s predecessor, Randy Dorn, spent $344,000 that year. Espinoza has raised about $199,000 and spent $195,000.
Most races for state schools chief attract “two different shades of blue,” as Republican State Representative Drew Stokesbary describes it. Espinoza, a conservative activist, and Reykdal, a former Democratic state legislator, are an exception to that trend. And in a blue state, Reykdal’s backers are worried that voters won’t be able to distinguish the two on the ballot. The Superintendent of Public Instruction is the only elected member of the state’s executive branch that is nonpartisan; neither candidate is identified by political party on the ballot.
A recent poll mirrors some of those concerns.
A liberal pollster’s survey of around 600 Washingtonians conducted earlier this month found 47% of voters undecided about the race. Reykdal, with about 30% of the support, was about seven percentage points ahead of Espinoza.
That might sound like a healthy lead for the incumbent. But Northwest Progressive Institute, a progressive group that funded the survey, said “no incumbent in our survey polled as low as Reykdal did.” His margin of victory in the primary, 40%, was also the lowest of any incumbent for statewide office.
Espinoza has appealed to Republicans’ fervent opposition to the sex education law that Reykdal supported.
Reykdal didn’t start campaigning until after the primary, citing the heavy workload of leading the education department during the pandemic, and hasn’t held any in-person events because of the pandemic.
“It’s not really clear how the outcome is gonna fall,” said Phil Gardner, Reykdal’s campaign manager.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Espinoza’s campaign had held multiple sign-waving events and gatherings. Those events, found on her Facebook page, were from 2018.