Daily Brew, December 5: Republicans gained control of two state superintendent of schools

Welcome to the Monday, December 5, Brew. 

By: Douglas Kronaizl

Here’s what’s in store for you as you start your day:

  1. Republicans gained control of two state superintendent of schools offices this year
  2. A decade-low number of state legislative incumbents lost in general elections
  3. A final look at the U.S. Senate runoff in Georgia

Republicans gained control of two state superintendent of schools offices this year

Voters in seven states—Arizona, California, Georgia, Idaho, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Wyoming—elected a state superintendent of schools last month.

Republicans maintained control in four states and gained control of the office in Arizona and Oklahoma where Democrats previously held the position.

Democrats maintained control in California.

Though the exact name of the position varies, every state has an official responsible for overseeing and coordinating all of its elementary and secondary schools. Twelve superintendents are directly elected and the other 38 are appointed.

Elections for state superintendents tend to reflect broader debates in education policy, like the role of vouchers in public education. In recent years, topics like race in education, coronavirus responses, and sex and gender in schools have become more prevalent.

Here’s a look at this year’s races:

  • Arizona: Republicans gained control of the office after Thomas C. Horne (R) defeated incumbent Kathy Hoffman (D), 50.2% to 49.8%. Hoffman was first elected in 2018. Horne previously held the office from 2003 to 2011. Horne said he was waging a “war against ethnic studies and critical race theory.” Hoffman campaigned on policies to mitigate pandemic-related learning loss.
  • California: Incumbent Tony Thurmond, first elected in 2018, defeated Lance Christensen. This race was officially nonpartisan. Thurmond previously served as a Democrat in the state Assembly. Christensen was an education policy executive at the California Policy Center, a conservative and libertarian think tank.
  • Georgia: Incumbent Richard Woods (R) defeated Alisha Searcy (D). Woods, first elected in 2014, worked as a social studies teacher and school administrator. Searcy was a member of the state House from 2003 to 2015.
  • Idaho: Debbie Critchfield (R), a school district information officer, defeated Terry Gilbert (D), an educator. Critchfield defeated incumbent Sherri Ybarra (R) in the Republican primary.
  • Oklahoma: Ryan Walters (R) defeated Jena Nelson (D), switching control of the office from Democratic to Republican. Incumbent Joy Hoffmeister (D), first elected in 2014 as a Republican, was term-limited. Hoffmeister switched parties to become a Democrat in 2021 when she announced her 2022 candidacy for governor. Walters and Nelson disagreed on the role of race in education, school funding, and the use of taxpayer dollars to cover private school tuition.
  • South Carolina: Ellen Weaver (R) defeated Lisa Ellis (D). The use of taxpayer dollars for private schools was a defining issue in the race. Weaver said, “[W]e must ensure that parents of every income level can choose the right environment to support the … unique educational needs of their child.” Ellis said, “[T]he move into trying to privatize education … completely gets away from the purpose of educating a civilized society.”
  • Wyoming: Megan Degenfelder (R), a state education department employee, defeated Sergio Maldonado (D), an educator, college administrator, and school board member. Incumbent Brian Schroeder (R) was appointed to the position and did not seek a full term. Schroeder’s predecessor, Joy Balow (R), resigned in 2022 to become Virginia’s superintendent of public instruction.

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A decade-low number of state legislative incumbents lost in general elections

Of the 4,616 state legislative incumbents running in general elections this year, at least 158 lost, representing 3.4% of all incumbents running for re-election.

This is both the lowest number and percentage of state legislative incumbents defeated in general elections in more than a decade.

These totals include 82 Democrats (3.2% of those running for re-election), 73 Republicans (3.0%), and three minor party or independent officeholders (25.0%).

There are 48 incumbents in uncalled races as of Dec. 1. Even if all 48 incumbents lost (which is unlikely), 2022 would still have a decade-low number and rate of general election defeats.

This is also the first election cycle Ballotpedia has tracked where the number of incumbents defeated in primaries outpaced the number defeated in general elections. Republican incumbents lost in primaries at a higher rate than Democrats (6.2% v. 3.0%).

While Democrats lost more general elections than Republicans, Democrats still gained control of four chambers: the Michigan House and Senate, Minnesota Senate, and Pennsylvania House. Republicans controlled all four before the Nov. 8 election.

Democrats’ largest losses came in states where they were either already in the minority or held commanding majorities:

  • West Virginia: eight incumbents lost, where the party was already in the minority;
  • New York: six incumbents lost, where the party held a supermajority; and,
  • North Carolina: six incumbents lost, where the party was already in the minority.

Republicans’ largest losses had a larger effect on their legislative control:

  • New Hampshire: 19 incumbents lost, narrowing their House majority to a handful of seats in the 400-member chamber;
  • Colorado: six incumbents lost, where the party was already in the minority; and,
  • Minnesota: six incumbents lost, contributing to Democrats’ gain of Senate control.

In seven states, no incumbents from either party lost, though there are still uncalled races featuring incumbents in Oregon and Missouri. 

In Nebraska, this is the first cycle since 2014 with no incumbent defeats and, in Massachusetts, the first since 2016. 

In Delaware, Nevada, and Texas, this is the first cycle since before 2010 where every incumbent running for re-election won.

The total number of general election defeats included above do not include incumbents who lost in primaries, ran in the general election, and lost again. That happened four times this year.

  • Connecticut: Rep. John Hennessy (D) lost in the Democratic primary and in the general election as a minor party nominee.
  • New Hampshire: Rep. Joshua Query (D) lost in the Democratic primary but was later selected to fill a ballot vacancy in a different district and lost in the general election.
  • North Dakota: Rep. Charles Damschen (R) lost in the Republican primary and in the general election as a write-in candidate.
  • Utah: Rep. Stephen Handy (R) lost in the Republican convention and in the general election as a write-in candidate.

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A final look at the U.S. Senate runoff in Georgia

Tomorrow, Dec. 6, voters in Georgia will decide whether to re-elect U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock (D) or send Herschel Walker (R) to Congress next year.

This is the second cycle in a row where a U.S. Senate race in Georgia advanced to a runoff.

Regardless of the runoff’s outcome, Democrats will maintain a majority in the chamber, holding 48 seats and two independents who caucus with the party. Vice President Kamala Harris (D) serves as a tie-breaker.

But the outcome in Georgia could determine how often that tie-breaking is needed and remove the need for the chamber’s existing power-sharing agreement. For example, under the evenly-divided Senate, an equal number of Democrats and Republicans sit on each committee and split their allocated budgets. If Democrats gained an outright majority, they would control more committee seats and a larger portion of the budget.

If Warnock wins, Democrats will have a 51-seat majority. If Walker wins, the chamber will, again, be evenly split.

Warnock and Walker advanced to the runoff after neither candidate received the majority needed on Nov. 8 to win outright. Warnock led Walker 49.4% to 48.5% with the remaining votes going to Chase Oliver (L).

Including this year, there have been five U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia, three of which resulted in an incumbent defeat. In 1992, incumbent Wyche Fowler (D) lost to Paul Coverdell (R). Incumbents Kelly Loeffler (R) and David Perdue (R) lost to Warnock and U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff (D), respectively, in 2020. In 2008, incumbent Saxby Chambliss (R) won re-election in a runoff.

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