Spring election: Conservatives ousted some school board incumbents

What do the 2021 spring election results say about 2022? That's when Wisconsin will once again be a battleground in races for governor and U.S. Senate. Despite the progressive win in the state superintendent race, conservatives did beat some incumbent school board members, and part of the debate was over reopening schools amid the pandemic.

Facing a tough reelection campaign in Waukesha, school board incumbent Kurt O'Bryan said he was compelled for the first time in some twenty years to go ask for votes door-to-door.

"I believe there is a lot of national media pushing the narrative that’s questioning what’s being taught in schools across the country," O'Bryan said, "and unfortunately, I think a lot of constituents were able to translate that in their minds to it must be going on here."

Voters ousted him and another incumbent Waukesha School Board member, Diane Voit.

"I was willing to lose the election to protect our children, our staff, and our community, so I have no regrets," said O'Bryan.

The school board kept school partially virtual in the fall, but then voted unanimously in January to fully reopen. 

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Conservative Anthony Zenobia, who won a place on the Waukesha School Board, questioned the original decision made in August.

"That was a mistake. I would have never voted that way. I think the board did a lot of work to make sure the kids could go back to school and do so safety."

"We had many parents and educators that had significant health problems," O'Bryan said about the August decision. "And at the beginning, we didn’t know what covid would mean in the school setting. And so we had to proceed with caution."

These are officially nonpartisan races, but Republicans and Democrats backed candidates up and down the ballot. The Democratic Party of Wisconsin pumped more than $900,000 into the campaign of state superintendent candidate Jill Underly.  

Roughly seventy-five percent of the candidates, including Zenobia, backed by the Waukesha County GOP won in the conservative county. 

Down in Oak Creek-Franklin, conservatives organized to successfully vote out two incumbents.

"It’s monumental. I can’t begin to tell you what this means," said parent Jennifer Heiges. "It means that our children now have a positive future. We are on the road to recovery. We are going to have new faces, new ideas, and we are looking for more cooperation among the board. We are looking for a school board that is going to listen to the parents and the constituents."

In Wausau, newcomers beat School Board President Trica Zunker, who previously had national attention running for Congress. 

This story about conservatives voting out incumbents isn't found everywhere. Incumbents won in places like the Elmbrook School District, despite GOP support of the opposing candidate. Incumbents also won in Appleton and Kenosha.

In addition, at the statewide level, Democratic-backed Jill Underly won the state superintendent race, beating Deb Kerr, who campaigned on reopening schools immediately. What does all this mean for  2022?

"I wouldn’t read too much into any one single election, I would look at the historical trend," said Democratic strategist Joe Zepecki. "This was the 11th competitive statewide election since Donald Trump won Wisconsin, and it’s the tenth time the progressive candidate or the Democrat has won. That’s what I call one heck of a winning streak." 

"I think there are things that liberal candidates, Tony Evers should be worried about," said Republican strategist and Kerr campaign manager Ethan Hollenberger. "In Winnebago, the conservative or anti-COVID-lockdown candidate [for county executive] won and he won handily against a 16-year incumbent."

In the near future, some Wisconsin school boards will look a little different, with newcomers taking their seats this spring.

"That will certainly be my focus -- how can we bring kids that are not getting those basic services, how do we get them up to speed?" said Zenobia. "And the COVID policies made that worse here in Waukesha."


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