Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Why Republicans Couldn’t Beat Evers

The incumbent superintendent was vulnerable. Why the GOP stumbled.

By - Apr 13th, 2017 12:30 pm
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, Wisconsin’s top education official since 2009, describes the state’s racial achievement gap as “extraordinarily horrible.” Photo by Haley Henschel of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, Wisconsin’s top education official since 2009, describes the state’s racial achievement gap as “extraordinarily horrible.” Photo by Haley Henschel of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

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.

“Now’s the time to continue to get what they can,” Republican lobbyist Brandon Scholz crowed to the Wisconsin State Journal. Evers, he noted, was vulnerable to a Trump-like campaign painting Evers “as the establishment [candidate] who has done nothing.”

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 was also close to Republican guru and former Bradley Foundation CEO Michael Grebe, who funneled $10,000 to the Einhorn Family Foundation, which was used to pay for some scary billboard ads during the 2010 election campaign which warned that voter fraud was a felony.  In the wake of widespread criticism that the ads aimed to suppress votes, Clear Channel, which owned the billboards, took down the ads.

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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11 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Why Republicans Couldn’t Beat Evers”

  1. Jason says:

    This may just be the Trump effect with the left being energized. Madison carried Evers.

  2. Vincent Hanna says:

    Indeed Jason. Look at the recent race in Kansas and the upcoming one in Georgia. Republicans are very afraid, as they should be.

  3. Donna Richards says:

    I think it is much less complicated. There was really nothing except this race to turn Republicans out. If there had been a Supreme Court race, it likely would have attracted more people and esp. Republicans to the polls. The Evers supporters cared more and had more to lose.

  4. tim haering says:

    Evers won cause he’s the incumbent as he’s a rational liberal. But also because Priebus refused my advice that he have Trump tweet for HOltz

  5. Bill Kurtz says:

    You explained why this has become a low priority for the right. As you said, WEAC was “decimated,” and voucher schools have successfully gotten more money by working through Walker and legislators they’ve helped fund. With those accomplishments, an unfriendly DPI superintendent is just a minor irritant to them.

  6. Milwaukee Native says:

    “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 mortally wounded his own campaign with blatant corruption.

  7. old baldy says:


    Evers also carried many counties outstate that voted 60% for trump, mine included. Try facts for a change.

  8. duncan says:

    I’ve been eager to read analysis about the Evers victory .. I can’t say I find this opinion piece particularly compelling.

    I don’t think money played much of a part in this race .. if that was the case, you’d have seen a bunch of adverts for Evers, and .. that didn’t happen.

    The Einhorn thing is all inside baseball, and very few people would know about it nor care.

    As for Walker supporting more education funding taking the legs from Holtz .. I just don’t see how that impacted so many voters. For that to be true, you’d need a bunch of GOP/moderate voters to switch their thinking and believe Holtz wasn’t with the GOP program of education starvation.

    The simple possibility to Evers being so dominant is hard to believe: The left came out to vote in numbers not seen in a decade+ of Aprils, and previous GOP voters swung to Evers. — None of that makes any sense, but it’s the only thing that could be true at this point.

    One very much wonders what would have happened if Justice Ziegler had ANY opponent. Would the Evers voters crossed over for her? Would GOP turnout been higher? I dunno, but it was downright stupid for the left to not run a candidate against her.

  9. Paul says:

    Really, Duncan? I saw Evers’ TV ads several times leading up to the election, but never a single one for Holtz. I wondered if that was perhaps because I don’t listen to AM radio.

  10. Ted Chisholm says:

    Not that Ziegler should have gone unopposed, but a contested Supreme Court race would have meant a greater conservative cash infusion into this election cycle. That could have threatened both Evers (particularly if outside money had been present early on, and favored Humphries) and the Working Families-backed MPS candidates.

  11. duncan says:

    Paul .. Well .. truth is, I watch very little local TV, so if Evers had ads, I wouldn’t have seen them. I’ll take your word there were Evers ads. Were there enough for a 70/30 crushing?

    I’d be curious as to the efficacy of TV ads in 2017 .. Everything I watch is from a DVR, so I skip all commercials. (Doesn’t everybody do this these days?)

    As for the WI Supreme Ct race .. good points, Ted, that’s certainly one viable theory. The other being, perhaps the 2016 elections have lit a fire under left leaning voters .. it’s still mighty interesting that a state-wide liberal candidate won by 40 points.

    .. I do wonder .. the WISC is 5-2 conservative. Eventually Ambrahamson and Ann Walsh Bradley will retire .. will another liberal candidate ever run or win again in the next 15-20 years?

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