After spending eight long years at odds with the Obama Administration, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and National Education Association (NEA) viewed the 2016 elections as an opportunity to reassert themselves within the Democratic Party and to regain a measure of influence over federal education policy. As a result, the two unions spent massive amounts to get Democrats elected to office, threw their weight behind Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president, and closely coordinated their efforts with national Democratic Party officials.

It goes without saying that things did not work out as planned. While the two teachers unions spent tens of millions of dollars during the 2016 election cycle to get Clinton and other Democrats elected, in the end, they failed to deliver where it counts: the voting booth. As Greg Toppo at USA Today reported shortly after the elections, internal union figures revealed that one out of every three NEA members and one out of every five AFT members voted for Donald Trump.

AFT & NEA certainly never expected that Betsy DeVos would become U.S. Secretary of Education.

Nevertheless, it is worth taking measure of the size and scope AFT and NEA’s efforts to influence the recent elections because it makes clear that they are able to muster considerable resources to fight for their interests. According to campaign finance data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, AFT and NEA spent a combined total of $72,661,520 during the 2016 election cycle. Nearly three-quarters of that amount – $53,534,015 – came from NEA, while the balance ($19,127,505) was spent by AFT.1

Below, I’ve broken down that campaign finance data into four broad categories – contributions to candidates, ballot committees, party committees, and independent expenditure groups – and highlight some interesting facts along the way. You can also search through the data yourself using the search and sorting functions in the tables under each category. As noted above, the underlying campaign finance records come from the National Institute on Money in State Politics and can be accessed at their website, followthemoney.org.

Contributions to candidates

During the 2016 election cycle, AFT and NEA contributed more than $4.4 million to 332 candidates running for office across 47 states and District of Columbia. Over 85% of those candidates were Democrats and just over 70% of them were eventually elected.

Although three-quarters of their contributions went to candidates running for the U.S. House and Senate, the two unions spent sizable amounts on several gubernatorial races, including $475,000 to support John Gregg’s unsuccessful bid to replace Mike Pence in Indiana, $125,000 to support Gov. Kate Brown in Oregon’s special gubernatorial election, and $75,000 for Chris Koster’s failed campaign for governor in Missouri.

John Gregg, Kate Brown & Chris Koster

AFT and NEA also made plays in lower-profile races, such as Glenda Ritz’s failed bid for reelection as Indiana’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Ritz made headlines back in 2012 for her surprise victory over incumbent Tony Bennett, whom she pilloried during the campaign for his support of the Common Core State Standards. Last year, the two teachers unions gave Ritz a combined total of $55,000 to her campaign.

Contributions to ballot committees

A look at overall total contributions reveals that ballot committees were the biggest beneficiaries of AFT and NEA political cash. The two unions plowed more than $7.1 million into the Save Our Public Schools campaign, which successfully fought a ballot initiative to raise the charter school cap in Massachusetts. They also spent nearly $5 million in Georgia to defeat a proposal to adopt a statewide takeover district modeled on Louisiana’s Recovery School District.

However, their efforts to pass ballot initiatives in other states ran into trouble. In Oregon, AFT and NEA gave more than $3.5 million to two groups behind Measure 97, a ballot initiative that would have raised corporate taxes to pay for K-12 education and other state services. As noted in a previous post, Measure 97 was soundly rejected by voters, 59% to 41%.

NEA also spent $2.6 million in support of a ballot initiative in Maine – Question 2 – which would have raised taxes on wealthy citizens to help pay for the state’s public schools. Although the proposal passed by the narrowest of margins – about 9,500 votes – Governor Paul LePage signed a bill last month that repealed Question 2.

Contributions to party committees

Perhaps not surprisingly, 97% of the teachers unions’ contributions to party committees went to Democrats. NEA gave $350,000 to the North Carolina Democratic Party to boost Attorney General Roy Cooper’s campaign against Republican Governor Pat McCrory. The vote was so close that the State Board of Elections ordered a partial recount of ballots, which eventually confirmed that Cooper won by 10,000 votes out of more than 4.7 million cast.

Democrat Roy Cooper (left) defeated incumbent Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in North Carolina’s gubernatorial election last year.

AFT and NEA also steered $230,000 to the Montana Democratic Party, whose standard bearer, incumbent Governor Steve Bullock, was up for reelection. Bullock easily defeated his Republican opponent, Greg Gianforte, who somehow managed to body slam a reporter and get himself elected to Congress six months later.

Contributions to independent expenditure groups

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC essentially removed limits on political spending by nonprofit organizations, super PACs have become dominant in the realm of campaign finance. Unlike traditional PACs, super PACs can spend an unlimited amount of money to advocate for or against political candidates, but are “independent” in the sense that they cannot directly give to candidates, nor coordinate with their campaigns.

During the 2016 election cycle, AFT and NEA gave tens of millions of dollars to super PACs and other outside groups, including some of the biggest players in Democratic politics. For example, the two unions gave Priorities USA Action, the main super PAC behind Hillary Clinton’s campaign, $2.5 million over the course of 2016. House Majority PAC and Senate Majority PAC, which support Democrats running for the U.S. House and Senate, received nearly $1.6 million from the teachers unions. They also contributed $960,000 to Women Vote!, a super PAC whose mission is to “elect pro-choice Democratic women to office.”

But AFT and NEA also used independent spending groups to influence state and local races. The two unions steered $865,000 to Kentucky Family Values, a super PACs supporting Democratic candidates for the state legislature, in an effort to prevent Gov. Matt Bevin from passing a law allowing charter schools in the Bluegrass State.2 They also put $300,000 behind Democrat Melissa Romano’s unsuccessful bid for Montana Superintendent of Schools. In addition, AFT spent nearly $370,000 to influence the outcome of last fall’s school board elections in New Orleans, as I revealed in a post earlier this year.


  1. It should be noted that these totals do not include contributions made to “dark money” organizations. Although both AFT and NEA often decry the use of dark money by their political opponents, both unions have used dark money organizations to hide their campaign contributions. 
  2. It didn’t work. Kentucky’s first charter school law was passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Bevin in March of this year. 

Subscribe to PE+CO

Get new posts directly in your inbox by submitting your information below.

Thanks. Check your email to confirm your subscription.

Something went wrong.

LEAVE A COMMENT

avatar
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Chris Stewart
Guest

Chris Stewart liked this Article on facebook.com.

Choice Media
Guest

Hey Big Spenders! A Look at @AFTunion and @NEAToday Spending During the 2016 Election Cycle buff.ly/2uHMDc5 via @petercook

Julie Phenice Campbell
Guest

Julie Phenice Campbell liked this Article on facebook.com.

Bennette Reed-Dibben
Guest

:-/ still no go. It’s probably my end Uuugh. Will try later from my computer, thank you!

via facebook.com

Bennette Reed-Dibben
Guest

I can’t open the Article :-/

via facebook.com

Peter C. Cook
Guest

Weird – its working for me. I just cleared the cache, so maybe try again?

via facebook.com

Bennette Reed-Dibben
Guest

I can’t open the Article :-/

via facebook.com

Pasco Revolution
Guest

MoneyInPolitics: RT edu_post: You knew AFTunion and NEAToday spent tons of money on elections last year. Now peter… peterccook.com/2017/08/10/hey…

Think Tank Thuto
Guest

edu_post: You knew AFTunion and NEAToday spent tons of money on elections last year. Now petercook reveals just ho… peterccook.com/2017/08/10/hey…

Education Post
Guest

You knew @AFTunion and @NEAToday spent tons of money on elections last year. Now @petercook reveals just how much: peterccook.com/2017/08/10/hey…

wpDiscuz