Republican-backed candidates in local school board races came out as big winners in the Milwaukee suburbs that are critical for the Wisconsin GOP in statewide elections, but they had mixed results in other parts of the presidential battleground state.
The school board elections Tuesday in Wisconsin were among the earliest nationwide this year and are the latest sign of how politicized typically nonpartisan races for local offices are becoming across the country.
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Former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, a Republican candidate for governor, took the unusual step of endorsing 48 school board candidates. Of those, 34 won, including eight incumbents, based on preliminary results. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, a former teacher, school administrator and state superintendent, did not endorse in any race.
“The pattern was traditional GOP areas, the endorsed candidates did well,” said Michael Ford, an associate professor of public administration at UW-Oshkosh who studies school board races. “Places where it’s more ideologically balanced, it didn’t seem to matter all that much.”
Ben Wikler, chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, was buoyed by the results, saying Republicans should have performed better in a year that is supposed to favor them. They needed to perform better in swing parts of the state, he said.
“What we saw last night is a sharply divided state that’s likely to come down to the wire in the fall,” Wikler said.
Conservative candidates picked up school board seats in Waukesha, Wausau and Kenosha, but lost races in Beloit and the western Wisconsin cities of La Crosse and Eau Claire.
The results reinforce the idea that the goal of Republicans getting behind school board candidates in a way they haven’t in the past was to invigorate their base ahead of the midterm elections, Ford said. It also shows that key voters in Milwaukee’s suburbs, who were uncomfortable voting for Donald Trump, swung back and voted for conservatives for school board, he said.
That could be a good sign for Republicans heading into the fall, when Evers and Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson are up for reelection. Johnson last year talked about the importance of local elections heading into the midterm and encouraged constituents to “take back our school boards, our county boards, our city councils.”
Republicans also saw wins beyond school board races. The Republican-backed candidate for a state appeals court seat in southeastern Wisconsin, Maria Lazar, defeated a sitting judge who was appointed by Evers. And Republican state Rep. Samantha Kerkman won the race for Kenosha County executive, replacing a Democrat.
Republicans also touted wins in other Democratic parts of the state, including winning two of three seats on the Green Bay City Council and flipping majority control of seven county boards.
Kleefisch has made education one of her top issues and said Wednesday the wins “show that Wisconsinites are fed up and want to take back control of their communities, schools and courts.”
The GOP-backed school board candidates largely focused their campaigns on the response to COVID-19 in schools, like mask mandates and vaccination requirements, and on exerting more control over what can be taught, particularly as it relates to race, sex and gender issues.
Ballotpedia, which tracks election data, found that there were 53 school board elections in Wisconsin in which candidates took a stance on how race is taught, how schools or districts responded to the pandemic, or school-related sex and gender issues.
Across the state
Here’s a look at some of the more noteworthy races:
- Three Waukesha School Board candidates endorsed by the Republican Party and Kleefisch won, defeating a slate of candidates backed by the statewide teachers union.
- Scarlett Johnson, one of the organizers of an unsuccessful school board recall election last fall in the suburban Milwaukee district of Mequon-Thiensville, lost her bid for the board along with another conservative candidate.
- Eau Claire school board candidate Marquell Johnson, who was backed by Democrats, won. Johnson, who is Black, made public an email he received during the campaign calling for a “Thank You White People Day.”
- Eau Claire school board president Tim Nordin, who urged his community not to “cede to fear,” won. He received a death threat after three conservative candidates for school board seats criticized a teacher training program that they claimed could exclude parents from conversations about their children’s gender identity or sexual orientation.
- Three candidates endorsed by the teachers union in La Crosse, including the incumbent school board president, defeated conservative challengers.
- In the small town of Holmen, a social media post in February showed a flyer asking voters to contact two conservative candidates for school board to “Keep Holmen Schools White and Christian.” Both of the named candidates, who were also endorsed by Kleefisch — Josh Neumann and Chad Updyke — lost. They decried the postcard, which has not been connected to them. They ran as critics of the school district’s COVID-19 restrictions and against the teaching of a “divisive curriculum.”
This story has been corrected to reflect that Scarlett Johnson is not an incumbent.
State government reporter Mitchell Schmidt's top stories of 2021
It would be an understatement to say it’s difficult to select my top five stories from 2021.
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I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my work as much as I’ve enjoyed covering Wisconsin, or at the very least have found these stories to be informative.
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