Alaska anti-DeVos push swivels to Sen. Sullivan

WASHINGTON — Alaskans who spent weeks lobbying Sen. Lisa Murkowski to oppose Betsy Devos' nomination for U.S. education secretary are now turning their attention to the state's junior senator, Dan Sullivan.

But they'll have their work cut out for them. Sullivan, R-Alaska, has made it clear he intends to vote to confirm DeVos.

On Wednesday, Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she will not vote for DeVos on the Senate floor, despite agreeing to pass the nomination out of a committee on which she serves.

The decisions by Murkowski and similarly situated Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins threw the vote on DeVos to a potential tie: Republicans hold a 52-48 majority in the Senate and there is unusually strong Democratic opposition to the nominee.

Unless one more senator strays across the aisle in either direction, Vice President Mike Pence will be left to cast a tie-breaking vote. It is a situation without precedent.

And so Alaskans who last week flooded Murkowski's phone lines and inboxes and who showed up at her offices are hoping they can talk Sullivan into switching his vote over the weekend.

In a novel effort to avoid the problem of busy signals and filled inboxes (a growing Senatewide problem), the leaders of public school advocacy group Great Alaska Schools are setting up an intermediary system.

On Friday, the group will hold what they are calling an "Emergency DeVos Tie-breaker Telethon" — taking recorded messages from Alaskans who call in all afternoon and want to urge Sullivan to vote against DeVos, according to co-founder Alyse Galvin.

NEA-Alaska, an affiliate of the national teachers' labor union, also switched its focus Wednesday, asking its members in posts on social media to call Sullivan and ask him to oppose DeVos.

"One vote can prevent Betsy DeVos from becoming Secretary of Education," said an NEA-Alaska Facebook post Wednesday.

Sullivan didn't appear to be a senator who could be swayed.

"While I share many of the concerns of Sen. Murkowski, after meeting with Mrs. DeVos, she committed to me that she will work with all Alaskans to strengthen education throughout the state, in both public and private schools," Sullivan said in a statement Wednesday, listing programs DeVos promised to support, particularly for rural Alaska schools.

Anti-DeVos advocates across the United States have been pushing senators to pick a position, and no one has yet emerged as a tie-breaking vote.

In an interview with journalist Katie Couric Thursday, Murkowski said she had not heard from any other Republicans following her lead. And she said she wasn't looking to lobby her colleagues either.

"I have made this decision based on what I have heard from my constituents," and on meetings with DeVos, Murkowski said. "I respect the right of each of my colleagues to weigh in as they feel appropriate."

Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Washington, D.C.