This year, Wisconsin held some of the nation’s first school board elections. Like everything else in American politics, these normally sleepy contests have become heavily polarized — and closely watched.
Nationally, Republicans see an opportunity to erode Democrats’ traditional education advantage, capitalizing on widespread frustration with schooling during the coronavirus pandemic. Under the banner of “parents’ rights,” they have fueled controversies over LGBTQ issues and critical race theory, an academic legal concept that has become a loose shorthand for a contentious debate about how schools teach about race. .
It’s a strategy that complements Republicans’ focus on local elections as a way to energize the party’s base. Last year, Senator Ron Johnson urged Wisconsin voters to “take back our school boards, our county boards, our city councils.”
So how did it go? Wisconsin Republicans have invested more than $70,000 in school board races this year, according to The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Rebecca Kleefisch, a former lieutenant governor running to oust Gov. Tony Evers, the incumbent Democrat, has endorsed a slate of 48 school board contestants. Thirty-four of them won.
But the raw numbers can be misleading. Republicans won seats in Waukesha County, a longtime GOP stronghold, but failed to make inroads in most contested areas. Scarlett Johnson, a conservative activist who gained national attention for organizing a recall of her local school board last fall, lost her candidacy in a suburb north of Milwaukee.
In contested Eau Claire, two incumbents backed by Democrats and the teachers’ unions, Tim Nordin and Marquell Johnson, were narrowly reelected with help from the state party. Both complained of being harassed during the campaign, during which Conservative candidates criticized school training materials on how to discuss the sexual identity of children.
In an email, Nordin said the findings were a repudiation of “false narratives about race and identity.” He added: “Our community saw through the dog whistles and rejected the thinly disguised attacks on our children.”