Why Republicans Couldn’t Beat Evers
The incumbent superintendent was vulnerable. Why the GOP stumbled.
State Superintendent Tony Evers looked like easy pickings for Republicans and conservatives.
The GOP had just scored a sweeping national victory in November and in Wisconsin had built its majority in the state legislature to a historic high. There was just one liberal left in the state Capitol with any power, and that was Evers, who faced reelection in April. In theory, the superintendent race is non-partisan, but over the years had become a contest pitting Democrats and union groups against conservative Republicans.
And that was now a very uneven contest.The state teachers union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, had been decimated by Act 10, and would not be able to spend huge money on the race. Whereas conservatives could count on voucher school supporters like the American Federation for Children, whose political arm had spent heavily and successfully on Republican legislative candidates in November.
Dodgeville School District administrator John Humphries, who announced a campaign against Evers, predicted there would be significant national money spent against the incumbent. “School-choice advocates are going to be a very important player,” he told the newspaper. Some believed conservatives would spend as much as $1 million on the campaign.
But as it turned out, very little money from out-of-state or school voucher groups was donated, and Evers had far more cash in a race he won easily. What happened?
For starters, Gov. Scott Walker’s shift on the schools helped Evers. Walker announced a 2017-2019 budget that many Republicans saw as his bid to get reelected in 2018. To ward off frequent criticism that he was starving K-12 schools, Walker included a $649 million increase in state school funding. Suddenly he was singing out of the same choir book as Evers, who had argued for years that more public school funding was needed.
That left Evers’ opponents, Humphries and Lowell Holtz, in a tricky position. “It’s a little tough to beat up on Evers when your governor is essentially giving him money in programs he wants,” Scholz told the State Journal. “The governor seems to be less enthusiastic [in the budget] on the nontraditional educational things like charters and vouchers… If Evers isn’t perceived as an enemy on those issues, it might make it tough for them.”
Those arguments were also harder to make because both Humphries and Holtz had spent their careers in the public school establishment, and now suddenly saw the need for change.
Meanwhile, the American Federation for Children (AFC) had reasons to sit this race out. Its president and key financial supporter Betsy DeVos had been nominated by President Trump for the position of Secretary of Education and there were tough questions being raised about her connections and donations to voucher schools.
With that in mind she had resigned her position as AFC president, but there were still questions about her connections to the group. So DeVos, who had contributed $5 million to pro-voucher Wisconsin politicians in the past, chose to sit out the Evers race.
“The school choice people were in chaos,” a GOP source tells me. “Suddenly a lot of their funding had been cut off.”
Into this void stepped Stephen Einhorn.
Einhorn, as I’ve written, is a curious character. The business man, philanthropist and conservative donor tends to avoid the media and has portrayed himself as private and retiring man, but Stephen and his wife Nancy Einhorn are a pretty high-profile couple who have served on the boards of numerous arts groups, and donated to a long list of Republican candidates.
Stephen is a Capitol and GOP political insider who donated $25,000 to Walker, just a month before Einhorn’s firm won a contract to manage $1 million of taxpayer money, potentially triggering federal “pay-to-play” conflict of interest rules. Einhorn’s Capital Midwest company won a grant from the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, and also hired a top Capitol lobbyist, Eric Petersen, to push for legislation creating a state-financed $200 million venture capital fund that would have benefitted Einhorn’s business.
Einhorn, I’m told, originally supported Holtz for superintendent, then switched to Humphries, sowing confusion among conservatives. And Einhorn, the source tells me, was the unnamed “business leader” who proposed that Holtz and Humphries make a deal to support each other, no matter who won the primary.
Humphries told the press that Holtz had offered to drop out of the race in exchange “for a promise of a $150,000-a-year job in a potential Humphries administration, plus a driver and vast power to break up or take over urban school districts,” as the Journal Sentinel reported.
Holtz beat Humphries in the primary, but the smelly story of this bizarre deal wouldn’t go away. He had gotten criticism from conservative talk show hosts Vicki McKenna and Dan O’Donnell and Evers ran ads saying Holtz planned to use tax dollars to pay for his own personal driver.
By then it was clear there was little chance of defeating Evers, and conservative donors stayed out of the race. Nor, it appears, did Einhorn spend much money on the race.
Indeed, though he apparently sought to be a king maker in this race, he’s never been a top-level donor: Steven and Nancy Einhorn have together donated in the neighborhood of $71,000 to state politicians since the 1990s, according the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. By contrast, someone like ABC Supply owner Diane Hendricks gave in excess of $1.25 million in donations to state Republican politicians during that time.
Given the disastrous results of the state superintendent race, it will be interesting to what kind of political clout Einhorn has in the future.
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