Wisconsin Republicans see Glenn Youngkin’s success in Virginia, as a model for Tony Evers’s defeat.
For lessons on how to reclaim the governor’s mansion from Democrat Tony Evers, Wisconsin Republicans have been studying Glenn Youngkin’s victory last fall in Virginia.
What is the biggest thing they are cramming onto? Critical race theory.
Youngkin won the gubernatorial race in a state that President Joe Biden carried by 10 percentage points in 2020. This was partly due to raising alarm over controversial education topic. It merged it with voters frustrations over school closings and leaning into a push from conservatives to attack a wave curriculum changes that are racially-focused. This was part of his strategy to mobilize his base without alienating moderates and won him enough support among suburban voters and women to win victory over a strong Democratic opponent.
Now, as the GOP primary kicks into gear in Wisconsin’s, the leading candidates for their party’s nomination are Rebecca Kleefisch and Kevin Nicholson, former lieutenant governor under Gov. Scott Walker and Kevin Nicholson — a businessman, ex-Marine — are putting pressure on the issue in hopes of copying Youngkin’s success.
GOP efforts to make education policy a strength pushes their heavy focus on race in schools into further spotlight. It’s an especially important area in Wisconsin for Republicans to challenge Evers, a former superintendent of state schools whose entire career was in public school education.
“He is an ideal target for these kinds of attacks because of many reasons, and you’ll watch that play out here,” stated Charlie Sykes, a former Milwaukee conservative talk radio host and editor-in-chief at The Bulwark, which is a conservative news website. “Secondly, Wisconsin’s battlefield will be the suburban voters. This is an issue Republicans can use to reach out to suburban voters and suburban women and say, we’re on your team. It may also be a way for them to win back that crucial constituency.
Republicans in the U.S. have brought critical race theory to the forefront in recent years. They have also incorporated charged topics such as racism and white privelege into a wider policy discussion about how GOP governors in at most eight states have removed it from public school lessons. In the first three weeks in 2022, conservative state legislators introduced more that 70 bills in 27 states to limit the teaching and practice of racial equality and white privilege.
Many politicians have confused the term critical racism theory — an academic concept that is typically taught in college courses to study how laws and institutions perpetuate racist behavior — with more general lessons about race. Some conservatives, including politicians like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (a Republican) has used this term to describe ideas or books they feel are too progressive or politically for the classroom.
It is highly disputed whether critical race theory in Wisconsin public schools is taught at all. Democrats and educators claim that the concept is not taught at any K-12 school in Wisconsin. Civil liberties and education groups both pointed out that Wisconsin teachers are required by state law to teach “concepts about race and diversity”. Efforts to do so, particularly in the years following the murder of George Floyd have been denigrated under the umbrella of critical race theory. The MacIver Institute is a conservative think-tank based in Madison. It has published its results from many school districts in Wisconsin that show critical race theory is taught at public schools.
Since her September campaign, Kleefisch made this a key issue. She invited activists against critical race theory to campaign events. According to her campaign she has also endorsed 38 school board recall campaigns across the state in which critical racism has become an important issue. In recent months, Rebecca PAC has given money to over two dozen candidates for school board in the state.
Carole Olkowski of Thiensville in Milwaukee, the suburb where Kleefisch was involved, stated that she would vote for Kleefisch due to her outspoken opposition to critical race theory, and support of parental rights within the school system.
“A lot of it (critical race theory) is taught to children far too young to understand it and not always approached in a properly. Olkowski, who is a self-described independent and voted for Trump in 2020, said that he thinks it can be dangerous.
Nicholson entered the race last month and has made his opposition to critical-race theory a key component of his campaign. His No Better Friend Corp. is a conservative non-profit that focuses on education reform and fighting critical racism theory. Nicholson stated that the topic “attempts pit Americans against one another” and that “Evers has permitted this intellectual poisoning to seep into Wisconsin schools.”
In six months of polling, 42 percent of Wisconsin voters stated that they were not sufficiently familiar with critical race theory in order to form an opinion about it. 26 percent of those who acknowledged the concept said they preferred it being taught in schools. 30 percent disagreed.
Republicans have had the opportunity to clarify the meaning of the label in purple states such as Wisconsin. Voters in the suburbs could decide who the next governor. Evers won 2018 by less than 30,000 votes. In 2020, President Joe Biden won by less than 21,000 votes.
Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette University Law School Poll, stated that “the amount of people still not terribly familiar with critical racism theory definitely gives both sides an opening to define it,”
According to strategists, the issue could make Evers’ area of strength or expertise into a weakness.
Evers ran for governor in 2018 with a platform that relied on his education experience. He has significantly increased funding to public schools, particularly in the areas special education and mental healthcare.
These perceived strengths were eroded as he has to deal with growing anti-CRT sentiment. last month he vetoed which would have prohibited Wisconsin public schools from teaching and training teachers about implicit bias and systemic racism.
“That bill, which forced him to veto the bill, absolutely cornered him into being a sort of bogeyman regarding this issue, especially considering his past. Sykes stated that there is nothing subtle about it.
Despite Republican momentum, Democratic strategists pointed out that recall Kleefisch was the most closely aligned with — an attempt by anti-critical-race theory activists to recall four members of the Mequon–Thiensville suburban Milwaukee district — .
“The Mequon school board race in the past year didn’t go well. Sachin Chheda from Milwaukee, a Democratic strategist, said that it’s not clear to anybody that it will work for a state such as Wisconsin. He was Evers’ 2009 state Superintendent race candidate. However, Chheda and other commentators said that it is still a very effective way for conservatives increase voter turnout.
Evers’ spokesperson Sam Roecker stated that Republicans are more focused than ever on Wisconsin children as pawns in order to gain political points and further divide the state.
However, pollsters and strategists warned Evers that despite Evers’ declining approval rating and the fact that early polls suggest that he would be in a dead heat against Kleefisch in an hypothetical matchup, he should not underestimate the power of the issue with voters. Even though the narratives around the gubernatorial race could shift to other topics like voting access,
Franklin stated that these types of attacks on candidates’ strengths really force the candidates being attacked into finding ways to make the area back a strength. He’ll need to find an answer. “We haven’t yet seen that.”