Student Loans and Political Ads

Student debt, the Ryan Budget, and the value of the Department of Education are among the higher education issues making their way onto the political airwaves this fall, as Democrats look to hold on to the Senate and keep seats in the House.

October 21, 2014
Center-Forward advertisment
A political ad in Georgia attacks a Republican Congressional candidate on federal student loans.

As Democrats look to keep control of the U.S. Senate and hold on to House seats, they are continuing to raise student loans as an issue in this fall's election.

After several Democrats last month pushed student loan refinancing on the campaign trail, some Democratic candidates in both House and Senate races are now trying to put their Republican opponents on the defensive on higher education issues.

In a handful of competitive races, Democrats are aiming to tie GOP candidates to student aid cuts in the budget proposed by Representative Paul Ryan, a prominent Republican advocate of reducing federal spending, and also pouncing on calls by some Tea Party-backed candidates to shutter the federal Education Department.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has aired ads in San Diego, Calif. to boost incumbent Democratic Representative Scott Peters. The ads attack Republican challenger Carl DeMaio by seeking to link him to student aid cuts in the Ryan budget.

One features a woman describing her son's acceptance to the University of California at Irvine.

"Without a student loan, we couldn't afford it," she says. "Carl DeMaio says he owes the Tea Party everything, and that includes cutting student loans."

The Ryan budget would eliminate the interest subsidy on need-based federal loans and freeze the maximum Pell Grant award. DeMaio has said that the Ryan budget “contains some good ideas,” but has said he would not support the overall proposal, according to U-T San Diego.

A second ad released by the DCCC presses the same case against DeMaio. It features three women -- an attorney, social worker, and teacher -- who describe the importance of student loans and criticize efforts to cut federal funding to them. "I was able to become a lawyer because of student loans," one says.

Democrats are also airing attack ads against Republicans who have called for the elimination of the Department of Education, arguing that such a change would also get rid of federal student aid programs.

The DCCC produced an ad attacking Representative David Young of Iowa, a Republican incumbent, based on his comments that he wanted to get rid of the Education Department "as we know it."

The ad says that "Washington insider" Young would "eliminate Pell Grants and scholarships, making it harder for middle-class families to pay for college."

Democrats are also airing similar attacks against Joni Ernst, the Republican who is running for the seat being vacated by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa.

The ad plays two clips of Ernst calling for the end of the Department of Education, casting her as "just too extreme."

"Joni Ernst would eliminate federal student loans that we'll need to afford college," a narrator's voice says.

An ad in Georgia is similarly attacking the Republican challenging incumbent Democratic Representative John Barrow. The television spot highlights that Georgia students have, on average, $23,000 in debt, and says that Republican Rick Allen "would eliminate the federal student loan program."

The ad, sponsored by the centrist group Center-Forward, which has endorsed Barrow, makes that claim based on Allen's comments that he wants to close the Education Department. But Allen's campaign has responded by saying that while the candidate wants to eliminate the agency, he would preserve federal funding for Pell Grants and student loans.

Higher education issues don't often figure prominently in campaign advertisements. But there are some indications that it may be getting some greater play during this cycle.

According to data from Kantar Media/CMAG that was analyzed by the Wesleyan Media Project, education issues generally were the fourth-most-mentioned issue in pro-Democratic ads in House races in recent weeks; the issue didn't crack the top 12 issues mentioned in pro-Republican ads.

In two states with close Senate races -- North Carolina and South Dakota -- education is the issued mentioned most in pro-Democratic ads, according to the Wesleyan Media Project. Its analysis does not distinguish between higher education and K-12 issues.

By rough comparison, according to the project, education was not among the top 10 issues mentioned in ads by either party airing during the 2010 midterm election season.

In Illinois, Republican Congressman Rodney Davis and his Democratic challenger have also sparred over student aid. Davis produced an ad featuring his daughter touting his efforts in Congress "to make college more affordable."

His campaign backs up the ad by noting that Davis voted for the 2013 budget agreement, which allowed the maximum Pell Grant award to increase. It also touts his votes on a series of higher education bills this year, including legislation to boost college counseling, create a competency-based education pilot program, and change the way the Education Department discloses college data to prospective students.

Davis's opponent, Ann Callis, a former state judge, has criticized his support of the Ryan budget blueprint. Campaigning with Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, Callis has said that the Ryan budget would hurt students by cutting aid.

In addition to targeting Republicans over the Ryan budget and student loans, some Democrats, especially in Senate races, have continued to promote the student loan refinancing proposal designed by Senator Elizabeth Warren. The proposal would let existing student loan borrowers lower the interest rate on their debt.

In Oregon, for instance, Senator Jeff Merkley has aired ads telling voters that he "stood up to Wall Street and passed a new law to make college more affordable." The ad also notes that Merkely was the first in his family to go to college.

Supporters of Senator Kay Hagan of North Carolina are airing ads against her Republican challenger Thom Tillis for saying he opposes the Democratic loan refinancing bill.

In some cases, Democrats are also running on plans to go even further than refinancing and to boost federal spending on student aid. Andrew Romanoff, a former Democratic state lawmaker in Colorado, has aired ads touting his higher education plan in his bid to unseat Republican incumbent Representative Mike Coffman.

“Instead of giving tax breaks to millionaires and big oil companies,” he says in the ad, “I’ll fight to expand Pell Grants and student loans with interest rates middle-class families can actually afford.”

College Republicans have also been pushing back against the Democratic student loan plans, debuting an ad earlier this month that criticizes the proposal as not innovative or helpful.



Back to Top