Betsy DeVos, a woman who cannot explain the basic fucking facts about the American education system but is pretty sure that guns can kill grizzly bears, was confirmed as Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education on Tuesday afternoon. Vice President Mike Pence casted the deciding ballot after the Senate vote deadlocked at 50-50. How did a school-choice drum-beater who has no experience in public schools, and who has been called “partly responsible for what even charter advocates acknowledge is the biggest school reform disaster in the country,” come to helm the country’s Department of Education? The answer, it turns out, is paying an exceptionally hefty price for it.
DeVos is, to use a technical term, rich as hell. Her father founded a Michigan manufacturing company that flourished when the auto industry took over Detroit, and her husband, Dick DeVos, Jr., is the heir to the Amway fortune. (Just for good measure, her father-in-law owns the Orlando Magic). Public records indicate that during her lifetime, DeVos has personally donated nearly $2.5 million dollars to Republican candidates, PACs, and party organizations. An exhaustively-researched OpenSecrets.org report details millions of dollars in donations to Republican causes from her myriad family members and family-controlled business interests, and DeVos herself confirmed to an incredulous Bernie Sanders that those expenditures probably total some $200 million.
This probably isn’t the first time you’ve heard that money is important in politics, but DeVos‘ contentious confirmation process provides revealing (if depressing) insight into what this actually looks like in practice. Even though the barrage of constituent phone calls urging lawmakers to scuttle DeVos‘ nomination nearly fried Capitol Hill switchboards and set call-volume records, only two Republican senators—Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine—ultimately broke ranks with the party and voted against DeVos, necessitating the presence of Vice President Pence to break the tie. Despite tremendous pressure from millions of furious Americans, no other GOP lawmakers could be similarly swayed.
To understand why, look no further than the upcoming Senate election maps. Collins and Murkowski don’t have to defend their seats until 2020 and 2022, respectively, so they have significantly more leeway when it comes to deviating from the party agenda. If they think DeVos is an unqualified rube who poses a danger to American public education as we know it, voting against her confirmation is a relatively low-risk political proposition. For the two Republican senators prepping for 2018 reelection bids, though—Dean Heller of Nevada and Jeff Flake of Arizona—the pro-con list looks very different. These lawmakers are already knee-deep in the fundraising process, and at this critical juncture, DeVos‘ family is too big a source of money, power, and influence within donor circles to alienate.
In other words, Republican senators who had doubts about DeVos, ignored their constituents, and voted to confirm her anyway did so because they didn’t think they could afford to do anything else. In less than two years, Heller and Flake will find out if they were right.