Donald Trump’s namesake university is handing Democrats an easy hit against Republicans who support such for-profit schools and, in at least one case, own a piece of one.
The presumptive Republican nominee’s troubles with Trump University will likely continue through the fall. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is suing Trump for fraud, a class-action lawsuit is heading toward trial in California, and rival Hillary Clinton has hammered Trump over it in campaign material, speeches and even a parody video.
It’s Campaigning 101: Both parties try to link down-ballot candidates with their party’s presumptive presidential nominees. “Do you stand with Donald Trump? Or do you not?” Pennsylvania Democratic Senate nominee Katie McGinty said Monday as she appeared on MSNBC to discuss rival Pat Toomey’s record broadly. Democrats have seen Trump slump on the issue in focus groups, and polling finds him vulnerable. Now, they’re betting that drags down fellow Republicans like Toomey.
The Pennsylvania Senator is expected to get the Trump U treatment over his dealings with Yorktown University, a for-profit college that has been criticized for its lack of accreditation, questionable academic offerings and marketing to veterans who can receive government tuition aid. Toomey is an investor in the online program, served on its boards and agreed to appear in its marketing materials.
Toomey’s campaign spokesman said the Senator was never a day-to-day player with the programs and argued that anyone trying to make Yorktown an issue is desperate.
Toomey is not alone in facing scrutiny for links to such schools. Former presidential candidate Marco Rubio was hit in the Republican primary for his support of the now-closed Corinthian Colleges; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee took some heat for his support of Victory University, a for-profit based in Memphis, before its untimely demise; and former President Bill Clinton has faced censure for his lucrative work with for-profit colleges, even as his wife has criticized them.
That’s a marked turnaround from 2012, when Democratic attempts to ding Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney over his connections to Florida’s Full Sail University landed with a dud among voters. But as with so much of this campaign, Trump has thoroughly changed the rules. And down-ballot candidates could pay the political price for Trump’s troubles.
Republican lawmakers have long celebrated the for-profit model as evidence of the free market working as it should. While the states’ public university systems are underwritten directly by state taxes and federal government grants, for-profit institutions were long seen as operating with less government involvement. The media attention on Trump University has helped spotlight the fact that many for-profits, including major institutions like the University of Phoenix, rely on taxpayer-supported grants and loans for veterans and low-income students for roughly 90% of their revenue.
The drama around Trump University has also made for-profit programs—and their unique, sometimes predatory, business model—a household topic. Even if the details remain cloudy, there is a sense among some voters that things at these schools just aren’t right. This has potentially carved out a new angle of attack for political players looking to make a connection on the issue.
Democrats see the tactic as one piece to their path back to a majority in the Senate. Republicans have a tenuous majority at the moment, but no fewer than a half-dozen races are legitimately up for grabs. With Trump as the party leader, many Senators are bracing for a go-it-alone fall.
Toomey is among those candidates who is building a campaign on the defense, and Democrats will likely use every piece of research they have on Toomey against him. “Donald Trump peddling shady educations at Trump University exposed him as nothing more than a con man looking to screw working families out of their hard earned money. Pat Toomey is going to face similar scrutiny over his investments in a for-profit college incredibly similar to Trump’s relationship to Trump U,” said one Democratic operative.
Yorktown pushed an online curriculum that was conservative and at times out of step with mainstream academic requirements. One class sought to help students fight what it considered political correctness, while another sought to discredit feminists. The school also offered courses with a conservative reading of history and philosophy.
But the program never really took off. Its shaky finances and lack of accreditation prompted Colorado to ban Yorktown from offering degrees, forcing it to relocate to Florida, though the program still qualified for veterans to use G.I. Bill benefits.
Toomey’s involvement with Yorktown came between his departure from the U.S. House after the 2004 elections and his election to the Senate in 2010. Tommey served on the school’s boards. His staff says the relationship was minor.
“Many years ago, Senator Toomey was approached by an acquaintance about a new effort he was starting,” Toomey communications director Ted Kwong tells TIME. “The Senator made a small contribution and lent his name to the organization, but that was the extent of his minimal involvement.”
Kwong said that Democrats “are desperately throwing mud in the hopes that something will stick.”
“In contrast, Senator Toomey has spent his time in public service fighting to save Pennsylvania jobs and find bipartisan solutions to keep Pennsylvania families safe,” he added.
Toomey still lists his investment with the program on his Senate financial disclosures. They are worth next-to-nothing, although that’s more due to the program’s failure to find success than Toomey’s initial financial investment. The company’s regulatory filings, however, listed Toomey’s name in marketing materials.
“In 2009, before Senator Toomey ran for Senate, he asked the school to stop using his name,” Kwong said. Democrats are unlikely to heed such a request.
With Haley Sweetland Edwards.