Student debt attracted unprecedented levels of attention during the 2012 presidential election.
As the nation’s collective student loan bill for the first time surpassed the $1 trillion threshold and a Congressional deadline on interest rates loomed, student debt captured the attention of both presidential candidates.
Two years later, student debt remains a hot topic in Washington. And even without the drama of a presidential contest, the issue is cropping up on the 2014 campaign trail in some of the most contentious Senate races.
Since holding a vote on their student loan refinancing plan last month, many Senate Democrats have been promoting the plan across the country. Most visibly, the proposal’s main architect, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, has traveled to West Virginia and Kentucky in recent weeks to campaign for Democratic candidates for Senate.
Warren has rallied voters in both states with a populist message about helping the middle class, including providing relief to student loan borrowers. As she has before, she framed her debt relief bill as a choice between helping students or wealthy Americans.
In West Virginia, the Democratic Senate candidate Natalie Tennant, the current secretary of state, distanced herself from Warren’s support of the Obama administration’s regulations on coal emissions.
But Tennant enthusiastically embraced Warren’s student debt refinancing bill, including it as part of her education agenda. Both Tennant and Warren were introduced at a campaign rally this month by a West Virginia University law student who said she would be $108,000 in debt by the time she graduates.
Tennant has also criticized her Republican opponent, U.S. Representative Shelley Moore Capito, for her opposition to the refinancing legislation.
In Kentucky, Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes has also sought to use student debt to bolster her effort to unseat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Appearing with Warren at a college affordability rally at the University of Louisville earlier this month, Grimes endorsed the student debt refinancing legislation and criticized McConnell for blocking it.
There too, Warren took some flak. In addition to criticisms about her liberal policies being out of step with Kentucky votes, local Republicans took on Warren’s student aid message directly with a dig at her Harvard University salary, holding signs that said she “took $429,981 from students,” according to The Boston Globe.
Other Senate Democrats across that country who are looking to hold on to their seats this election cycle have also turned to student loan issues to some extent. In Hawaii, Senator Brian Schatz is airing ads that tout his support of last year’s student interest rate compromise. (The ad also cites his legislation aimed at tying federal student aid to colleges’ performance on accountability measures).
Virginia Senator Mark Warner is airing a biographical ad that says he lived out of a car and slept on friends’ couches while “trying to pay back my student loans.” The ad also says Warner has fought to lower the interest rates on student loans.
Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, meanwhile, has posted on her website a student loan calculator where constituents who have existing student loans can see how much they would have saved under the refinancing bill that she supported. She also lists reforming student loans as among the priorities she is fighting for in one of her television ads. Her campaign points to the refinancing legislation as the evidence to support that claim.
In Arkansas, Democratic Senator Mark Pryor has also touted his support of the student loan refinancing measure while criticizing his Republican opponent, Representative Tom Cotton, for voting to reduce student aid.
Pryor’s also had some help from outside political groups in that line of criticism. The National Education Association’s advocacy arm and the Democratic Patriot Majority USA group are both running ads against Cotton for what they perceive to be hypocrisy in his position on student aid.
“Congressman Tom Cotton used federal student loans to help pay for Harvard, but now Cotton wants to put an end to those same loan programs,” one of the ad’s narrator says. A teacher then says that Cotton is trying to deny Arkansas students the same advantage that he was afforded.
Higher education issues have also been playing a role in the New Hampshire Senate race. Incumbent Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen last week released a new ad focused solely on student loan refinancing.
“Right now, our students can’t refinance their loans the way you can refinance a car loan or a mortgage,” she says in the ad, citing the state’s average student loan burden of $33,000. “I want to change that. I am fighting for a bill to allow students to refinance their loans. It will lower rates and save families thousands of dollars.”
After Shaheen first touted her vote in favor of loan refinancing last month, her Republican opponent, the former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, released his own higher education plan. Among other things, it calls for wealthy universities to be held accountable for their endowments, and administrator and faculty pay. He has separately called for large university endowments to be taxed.