This year, Wisconsin held some of the earliest school-board elections in the country. Like everything else in American politics, these normally sleepy contests have become sharply polarized — and closely watched.
Nationally, Republicans see an opportunity to erode the Democrats’ traditional advantage on education, capitalizing on widespread frustration over schooling during the coronavirus pandemic. Under the banner of “parents’ rights,” they’ve stoked controversies over L.G.B.T.Q. issues and critical race theory, an academic legal concept that has become a loose shorthand for a contentious debate on how schools teach about race.
It’s a strategy that complements Republicans’ emphasis on local elections as a means of energizing the base of the party. 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? Republicans in Wisconsin invested more than $70,000 in school-board races this year, according to The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Rebecca Kleefisch, a former lieutenant governor who is running to oust Gov. Tony Evers, the Democratic incumbent, endorsed a slate of 48 candidates in school board contests. Thirty-four of them won.
But the raw numbers can be misleading. Republicans picked up seats in Waukesha County, a longtime G.O.P. stronghold, but failed to make inroads in most contested areas. Scarlett Johnson, a conservative activist who drew national attention for organizing a recall of her local school board last fall, lost her election bid in a suburb north of Milwaukee.
In contested Eau Claire, two incumbents backed by Democrats and teachers’ unions, Tim Nordin and Marquell Johnson, were narrowly re-elected with some help from the state party. Both had complained of receiving harassment during the campaign, during which conservative candidates criticized school training materials on how to discuss children’s sexual identities.
In an email, Nordin said the results were a repudiation of “false narratives about race and identity.” He added, “Our community saw through dog whistles and rejected barely disguised attacks on our children.”