GOP struggling to find challenger for Glenda Ritz
By Chelsea Schneider
When Glenda Ritz toppled Republican school superintendent Tony Bennett in 2012, it ignited one of the state’s most partisan political battles.
Over the past two years, Ritz’s opponents have worked to weaken her control over Hoosier schools. All the while, Ritz has fought to try and show she and the state’s teachers and schoolchildren are the true victims of the rancor.
The divide grew even deeper with Ritz and Gov. Mike Pence going head-to-head over education policy. First over a controversial education agency the governor created then disbanded, and then over who was to blame for an initial doubling of the length of the ISTEP earlier this year.
It reached a point where legislative Republicans even offered a bill, which was later modified, that would have effectively removed Ritz as chair of the Indiana State Board of Education.
So with that backdrop of animosity, consider this: Ritz is up for re-election in 2016 — the GOP’s first real chance to oust their nemesis — and not a single firm Republican opponent has emerged.
Some political insiders say they aren’t even hearing names of potential candidates, not even during those weeks when Ritz flirted with running for governor and the superintendent seat was effectively an open race.
So why in a strong Republican state is a race for a higher-profile statewide elected office seemingly on the back-burner — especially when it presents the opportunity to remove someone who has been such a thorn in the GOP’s side; someone whose ability to rally the state’s largest teachers union has become a challenge for Republicans now trying to reverse a negative perception with public educators?
One thing is for certain, political analysts say, there are members of the party that would take great satisfaction in defeating Ritz.
Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics, said it might come down to this: “Someone is going to have to raise a fair amount of money to overcome (Ritz’s) name recognition, and it’s hard to find people who are willing to do that.”
But beyond money, name recognition and the power of incumbency, Ritz almost certainly still has even more in her favor: the state’s powerful teachers union and its politically active members.
They largely are credited with sweeping her into office in 2012 in what was regarded as more than a minor upset. And they seem ready to step up and go to bat for Ritz again in 2016, said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, which is still in the process of formally endorsing a candidate.
“I think it will be difficult for (Republicans) to run anyone who can really address the concerns that educators, teachers and even parents have,” Meredith said, “because the state superintendent has been there. Voters have seen how she has been treated. It would take a very, very incredible candidate that everyone knows and loves. I can’t think of one that people would know and love more than Superintendent Ritz.”
The question, one Republican Party insider said, is whether the GOP will bring someone to the forefront and provide resources to compete against the simple message of the teachers union that “Republicans are destroying public education.”
That combines with the hesitancy, insiders say, to publicly speak out against Ritz over concerns those comments could make life harder for Pence. A Republican stirring up angst against Ritz could force Pence into the situation where he’s running against two people, the Democratic nominee for governor and her.
That said, some stress it’s not surprising a candidate hasn’t surfaced on the Republican side. It could be timing, since it’s still early for any statewide candidate, other than in the governor’s race, to formally declare runs. Or it could be strategy, because right now any action Ritz takes rises and falls on her merits and is not in a context of a campaign.
Despite the unknowns on the Republican side, a consensus is forming that the person best suited to run against Ritz is an educator, who could potentially make the case that the system has been dysfunctional with Pence and Ritz often at odds, and that politics shouldn’t influence education policy.
“The more they can label that person as a reformer, who is not an extremist, the better off they are going to be,” Downs said.
Education in the state has experienced a lot of changes very quickly, said Cari Whicker, a middle school teacher from Uniondale and a Republican member of the State Board of Education, who said she is considering entering the race. Because of that, Whicker said she feels the perception, at times, is that all the education reforms were bad, but she argues that’s not necessarily true.
“I think the Republican message has to be along the lines of all of the reform has not been for naught,” Whicker said. “We need some of that. We needed some of that to come about for the sake of kids, and now maybe it’s time to temper some of it.”
Yet, the GOP needs to do more to communicate its education initiatives that Republican strategist Robert Vane says have been successful and beneficial.
“We need to do a much better job messaging the accomplishments on education of Gov. Pence and Republicans in the Statehouse and beyond,” Vane said.
In an interview with the Star last week, Ritz said she anticipates that because she’s an incumbent, Hoosiers know what she’s accomplished, pointing to the outreach division she started to help struggling schools. In 2012, when she defeated Bennett, Ritz said she saw the beginning of a movement to support public education, and she feels it’s still strong today.
“The reforms that were put in place with the prior administration, there have been many changes throughout the first few years of my term to some of those reforms,” Ritz said, “but I don’t feel that educators as a whole feel that we are where we should be and really that’s been the reason why I’m running for re-election.”
The first test for a state superintendent candidate will come in the months running up to the 2016 November election when delegates at Republican and Democratic state conventions will choose who to run in the fall.
Indiana Republican Party Chairman Jeff Cardwell said he’s confident a strong Republican candidate will step forward.
“Improving education across the board and making sure every Hoosier has the opportunity to receive a quality education are top priorities,” Cardwell said in a statement.
But Ritz has shown the ability to draw Republican voters over to her side — and Paul Helmke, an Indiana University professor and former Republican mayor of Fort Wayne, said he feels that hasn’t changed.
“I knew teachers who have never been that political, or, if anything, on the Republican side of things, that were gung-ho for her four years ago,” Helmke said. “I think those people are still for her.”
(Call Star reporter Chelsea Schneider at (317) 444-6077. Follow her on Twitter:@indystarchelsea.)