Tony Evers, the state’s highest-ranking constitutional officer backed by Democrats, has been at odds with the Republicans who in his first term took control of almost every part of state government except his: the state Department of Public Instruction.
Now, Evers faces re-election this spring in the wake of an election that expanded the state’s Republican legislative majorities to historic levels and must confront challengers more experienced in education than those he’s run against.
Since Evers was first elected in 2009, Republicans have all but eliminated teachers unions’ collective bargaining power, expanded the number of private voucher and independent charter schools, fought Evers’ adoption of the Common Core State Standards and changed the way school success is measured.
The former Verona schools superintendent secured a second term in 2013 despite massive membership losses of the state’s largest teachers union, a strong campaign contributor for Evers in the past.
Now, Evers won’t have a traditionally muscular Wisconsin Education Association Council to back him. And he could face significant spending on behalf of candidates who support the expansion of taxpayer-funded private school vouchers.
“Now’s the time to continue to get what they can,” Republican lobbyist Brandon Scholz said of conservatives and GOP supporters.
Jenni Dye, research director for liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, which has studied the influence of pro-voucher groups on Wisconsin politics, said she expects heavy spending to defeat Evers.
But she said she expects people “who are concerned about public education in Wisconsin will be engaged in this race as they always have been.”
Evers called ‘hero’
John Matthews, former longtime executive director of Madison Teachers Inc., called Evers a “hero” and said he deserves to be re-elected. He said Wisconsin “residents know of his advocacy for their children.”
“That said, I do worry that the far right and the corporations which want to privatize our public schools and make them for-profit private schools will spend millions in an attempt to defeat him,” Matthews said.
A spokeswoman for WEAC did not respond to a request for comment.
Pro-voucher group American Federation for Children’s political arm spent heavily on behalf of Republican candidates in legislative races this year.
An AFC official said the group has not made any decisions about the superintendent’s race, including whom to support and whether to spend money.
Evers declined to comment on the campaign.
“I have been focused on my budget and focused on several other issues that are important to the state and I haven’t paid attention to what any potential opponents are saying,” he said.
Candidates have until early January to file candidacy papers. A primary will be held Feb. 21 and the general election is April 4.
Dodgeville School District administrator John Humphries and former Beloit School District superintendent Lowell Holtz are eyed as the candidates who support school vouchers, according to American Federation for Children’s Wisconsin lobbyist Justin Moralez.
“We haven’t picked a favorite yet but we will be monitoring the race closely,” he said.
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Humphries’ campaign is being headed by Reps. Jason Fields, D-Milwaukee, and Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac — lawmakers who back voucher expansion. Humphries, who announced his candidacy last week, is considered to be Republicans’ current favorite, Scholz said.
“I think WEAC doesn’t have as much funds as they used to and I do believe there is likely to be some national money in this race,” said Humphries in an interview. “I think school-choice advocates are going to be a very important player in this race — whether they do that in the (February) primary or later on in the election, I’m not sure.”
While union funds have been diminished because of Act 10, union members and supporters will counter the lack of funding with their feet, said Matthews.
“One of Scott Walker’s goals in enacting Act 10 was to dry up union funds, which were donated by members for political action. To counter that, union members will support Evers by working on his campaign,” he said.
Also in the race is superintendent Jeff Holmes of the Germantown School District, which last year abandoned the Common Core State Standards that Evers adopted in 2010. Richard Melcher, a Racine high school teacher, also is running.
The experience level and training in education of the candidates challenging Evers is a departure.
The past three unsuccessful superintendent candidates were a trained nurse and two former Republican lawmakers who worked as an electronics design engineer and an English teacher, respectively. None had worked as a school administrator.
Democratic strategist Sachin Chheda said Evers, who worked as deputy state superintendent before taking the department’s top position, has an advantage because even in years when Republicans have done well, voters have been hesitant to elect candidates who were not endorsed by other educators, such as the teachers union.
“In the past, their candidates have been less-qualified and the more progressive candidate has been able to garner significant bipartisan support,” Chheda said. “I think the question is, ‘Does the state superintendent race become more partisan or does it become less partisan?’ and I think the answer is we don’t know because the (Donald Trump) dynamic is not (traditionally Republican).”
Scholz said the outcome of the presidential election shows voters aren’t thrilled with the idea of (the) establishment, giving Evers’ opponents a message that could resonate.
“They can paint Evers as the establishment who has done nothing,” said Scholz.
Had Hillary Clinton won the presidency, third-party groups that back Evers might be more willing to spend money, he said. Now, they might not.
“I think Democrats and the liberal third-party groups poured in a gazillion (dollars into the 2016 election) and it didn’t change a thing. The question is: Do they have any money left?” he said.
The job of state superintendent is officially nonpartisan, but for years Democrat-aligned candidates have won, in part because of WEAC PAC’s spending.
For the 2013 superintendent race, WEAC’s PAC spent about $536,000 on advertising for Evers and spent a similar amount during his 2009 race on campaign ads and literature, according to campaign finance records.
But for the 2016 state legislative races WEAC’s political action committee’s direct spending was $287 and $0 for 2014 elections, according to campaign finance records.
“That is sharply off from what its direct spending on electioneering activities used to be,” said Michael Buelow of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks campaign spending.
But the PAC did transfer more than $570,000 in 2016 to the Greater Wisconsin Committee political action committee and the Greater Wisconsin Independent Expenditure Fund.
In 2014, WEAC PAC transferred more than $1.8 million total to PACs controlled by Greater Wisconsin, the state AFL-CIO, We Are Wisconsin and Wisconsin Progress, according to Buelow.
As of Oct. 24, two weeks before the general election, the PAC had $754,665 in cash on hand.