Dan O’Donnell analyzes the Spring Election with a particular focus on how motivation and organization in local races led to victories across the state
April 7, 2021
Perspective by Dan O’Donnell
The strength of conservatism in Wisconsin has always rested in its grassroots, particularly in the WOW Counties, and last night once again proved its strength when it is well-organized and motivated.
While liberal Jill Underly easily won the State Superintendent race, this was no surprise. No teachers union-backed candidate has lost this race in at least 20 years, and her allies dumped more money in support of her and against her opponent than had ever been spent in total on a Superintendent election.
In addition, her opponent—Brown Deer Superintendent Deborah Kerr—was no conservative. She is a partisan Democrat who recognized that she needed to move to the right in the general election in order to have any prayer of winning. This was so odious to her and her core supporters that her campaign manager actually quit instead of daring to court conservative votes.
Sure, Kerr talked a good game about expanding school choice and reopening schools, without an honest ideological core she gave conservative voters no grounds to be passionate in their support for her.
Those conservatives were, however, incredibly passionate about their support for Shelley Grogan in the Court of Appeals District 2 race, and she won in a landslide even though her opponent’s wealthy parents (longtime Republican donors) did everything they could to trick conservatives into believing their Governor Evers-appointed son, Jeffrey Davis, was one of them. Davis himself dumped $500,000 of his own money in a last-ditch effort to save his seat.
It didn’t work: Both Grogan and conservative Gregory Gill in the Court of Appeals District 3 race won by more than ten percentage points.
In a special election for the 13th State Senate District, Republican Representative John Jagler won a closer-than-expected race against far-left Democrat Melissa Winker, who had the backing of a shocking amount of outside money from across the country.
What hurt Jagler more than that, however (and “hurt” is a relative term for a candidate who won by seven percent) was the “Trump Conservative Party” candidate Spencer Zimmerman’s presence on the ballot and a write-in campaign launched by Don Pridemore, whom Jagler beat in the primary.
Zimmerman siphoned more than a thousand votes from Jagler largely because of the word “Trump” next to his name on the ballot, and this portends the only potential issue for Republicans moving forward: Kamikaze third-party campaigns from the right who will claim “Donald Trump was the only real conservative, not like this RINO” but only help Democrats get elected.
When conservatives are united and organized, they are a potent political force. For years, Republicans laughed at the notion of “community organizing” and used the title derisively to refer to former President Barack Obama. When liberals started winning school board and municipal races in conservative communities, however, the laughing stopped.
Liberals made inroads in counties and towns that were far more conservative than they had ever ventured, pushing municipal spending higher and school curricula farther and farther to the left. Voters wondered why their taxes steadily increased and their children came home every day talking about white privilege.
The tipping point seems to have been districts that refused to reopen for the fall semester over COVID-19 concerns. Suddenly conservatives had a reason to get involved in races that they had neglected for over a decade. Suddenly school board elections became far more important than they ever had before. No longer would those elections determine whether or not the gym got painted; they would decide whether or not children would be in school or not.
Then, when districts were confronted with activist demands for Black Lives Matter-inspired lessons, parents faced a stark choice—allow the radicals to indoctrinate their kids or take a stand.
In community after community, they chose the latter. A teacher’s unapproved BLM lesson in Burlington led to national headlines and utter chaos at school board meetings for months. In an effort to fan the flames, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Rory Linnane accused conservative board member Taylor Wishau of being a white supremacist because he…had a Betsy Ross flag behind him during a Zoom meeting.
“We’re in a war for this community,” one Burlington resident said ahead of the Spring Election.
Wishau won in a landslide, and so did Marlo Brown, a conservative African American candidate inspired to run by the craziness of the past year.
“Tonight’s election victory is historic for many reasons,” Wishau said in a statement following his win. “First, our supposed ‘racist community infested with white supremacists’ according to the Burlington Coalition To Dismantle Racism, just elected Burlington’s first Black man to an elected office in a landslide victory! That’s huge and destroys a year’s worth of false narratives by this supposed ‘social justice organization.’”
Diane Wood, a liberal Burlington Area School Board member who supported critical race theory in the classroom, lost handily.
So too did the liberal slate of candidates in the very conservative Milwaukee suburb of New Berlin.
When board member Jeffrey Kurth voiced his opposition to the idea of Black History Month during a meeting in February, saying in part that “if we’re going to be inclusive we shouldn’t be isolating by race, period,” Black Lives Matter activists targeted the district.
Both they and the local media were furious over Kurth’s comments and the district’s inaction on demands for radical BLM curriculum in New Berlin schools, but Kurth and fellow conservative Ron Seidl won easily last night.
All across southeastern Wisconsin, conservatives won back seats in which liberalism had crept, and it was in large part because of motivated organization. WisRed, a group dedicated to “winning local races” and organizing to do so, boasted on its Facebook page that it won 74 percent of the races it targeted.
The lesson ahead of the 2022 midterms is clear: Wisconsin needs more WisReds. It needs more Marlo Browns. It needs more people to get involved as candidates, volunteers, and, yes, organizers. It needs more groups dedicated to politics at the hyper-local level.
This is how conservatives won last night, how they’ve always won, and how they will win again. The first battle in the war to take back Wisconsin was largely successful, but now the real fight begins.