Big party politics in local nonpartisan races: Kleefisch, Nicholson make endorsements in spring election

MADISON, Wis. — In a Fox News appearance on Tuesday morning, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Kleefisch made her pitch on what’s historically a low-turnout election.

“Parents are fed up, and we’re taking back control,” she said. “Democrats have done this for years…and it’s only now that Republicans are getting involved and taking back control at the local level that they’re crying about it. You know what, call the wah-mbulance.”

She has made more than 100 endorsements in school board and other local, nonpartisan races during this cycle, and has helped recruit and train candidates for local races for years.

Primary GOP opponent Kevin Nicholson has made his own, smaller share of endorsements in the spring elections, most notably endorsing conservative-backed Bob Donovan in the Milwaukee mayoral race, seen by some as a bellwether for midterm elections this fall. A spokesperson for Nicholson pointed to a number of other local endorsements, as well as Nicholson’s part in joining the nationwide conservative trend opposing race-related education in schools.

Democratic governor Tony Evers hasn’t made endorsements in the spring election. “The governor generally has not gotten involved in nonpartisan races in Wisconsin,” a campaign spokesperson said.

Major politicians getting involved in small, nonpartisan elections is a trend ramping up during the pandemic amid anger from some over how Covid was handled in schools–and overlapping with that, amid a conservative nationwide push against teaching about race in schools.

University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh associate professor of public administration Mike Ford has studied school board and other local governments for years, and says there’s positive notes but also major concerns with the trend.

“Historically, 40% of school board races in the United States are uncontested,” he said. “That makes accountability really, really hard.”

Spring elections are historically low turnout: in a 2019 statewide spring election, just 27% of Wisconsin’s population turned out to vote for a supreme court justice seat. Increased partisan activity can tend to drive turnout, and as Prof. Ford noted, engagement in the democratic process is a positive.

However, involving party politics in roles that aren’t political in nature sets a dangerous precedent for the future of local government, he said.

“Our nonpartisan offices really have this built-in advantage of excluding political parties,” he said. “There’s this entrenched conflict point starting every deliberation with, ‘Are you a Republican or are you a Democrat?’ that makes governance really difficult. And I think that’s really unfortunate that’s starting to bleed into the local level.”