Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Parties Transform ‘Non’-Partisan Elections

Republicans lead push to turn city, county and school board races into partisan campaigns.

By - Apr 11th, 2022 11:39 am
Rebecca Kleefisch. Photo from the State of Wisconsin Blue Book 2017-2018.

Rebecca Kleefisch. Photo from the State of Wisconsin Blue Book 2017-2018.

Last week’s election may have made a myth out of all civics-books references to Wisconsin’s “non-partisan” spring elections.

Endorsements, recruiting and get-out-the-vote efforts by the Democratic and Republican leaders for school board and local government candidates mean many local candidates now can’t escape being tied to a party, whether they want to or not.

According to the National League of Cities, non-partisan elections started out of beliefs that political parties are irrelevant to providing local services and could invite cooperation between elected officials from different parties. In non-partisan elections, no party affiliations are listed next to candidates’ names.

Instead, on Tuesday, efforts by both parties reflected the national divide over how school boards responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and curriculum concerns and Republicans’ efforts to elect more conservatives. Both parties also used Tuesday’s elections as a training exercise for Nov. 8, when voters will elect a U.S. senator, U.S. House members, governor, attorney general and members of the Legislature.

Rebecca Kleefisch, the former lieutenant governor and best organized Republican candidate for governor, said she had worked to elect and donated campaign cash to more than 100 local candidates. “I am so proud to stand by scores of candidates who stepped up and put their names on the ballot to serve their communities and thank them for their willingness to serve,” Kleefisch said in a statement.

If she wins the August primary and is the GOP’s candidate for governor, Kleefisch expects the local candidates she helped to return the favor, helping her defeat Democratic Gov. Tony Evers on Nov. 8.“This momentum begun by parents fed up with excuses and failures will be the reason we will defeat Tony Evers in November,” Kleefisch said. “We won’t stop until liberals like Tony Evers, who don’t listen to parents, are kicked out of office and our voices are finally heard.”

The heads of both state parties claimed victory Tuesday. State Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler praised Milwaukee’s election of its first African-American mayor, Cavalier Johnson, who won the nonpartisan race with the help of a $100,000 campaign donation from the state party. “Mayor Johnson represents a new generation of leadership, and is committed to the priorities that matter for Milwaukee’s families: safe streets, good jobs, and a strong middle class,” Wikler said. “We look forward to continuing to partner with him in all the work ahead as we build a safer, stronger and more prosperous Milwaukee.”

Wikler also praised the DePere Council victory of Pamela Gantz, who Wikler said defeated incumbent Kelly Ruh, “who was one of the Republican Party of Wisconsin’s fraudulent electors in 2020.” Wikler was referring to Republican Party officials who authorized an Electoral College slate for President Donald Trump, who lost to President Joe Biden.

But State Republican Party Chair Paul Farrow said Democrats “routinely” get 80% of Milwaukee’s vote, so Johnson’s win was no surprise. “Conservatives were successful in roughly two-thirds of the races in which we were active, including swing and Democrat-leaning areas,” Farrow said. “When we stand up and fight back against the far-left takeover of our local governments, we win.”

Farrow said conservative voters replaced an Evers-appointed Court of Appeals Judge, Lori Kornblum, with Waukesha County Circuit Court Judge Maria Lazar; won a majority on the Green Bay City Council; “flipped” boards of supervisors in seven counties (Adams, Calumet, Door, Kenosha, Marathon, Rock and St. Croix), and added six seats on the La Crosse County Board of Supervisors.

The state Republican Party urged members to run for office, sign up to work as poll workers and offered candidates’ training.

Farrow was especially proud of conservatives who won school board elections: “Every targeted conservative candidate won their school board elections in Cedarburg, Elmbrook, Manitowoc, Menomonee Falls, Germantown, Wausau, Oconomowoc, Whitnall, Waukesha, Altoona, Amery, New London, Neenah [and] West Bend.”

Many county Republican Party organizations offered how-to-vote endorsements. The Jackson County Republican Party, for example, asked voters to vote for these local candidates: Black River Falls School Board, Ron Cork, Nick Helsted; Alma Center School Board, Karl Lehrke, Keith Jochimsen, Jordan Prindle, Eric Roberts; County Board of Supervisors, Bill Laurent (write-in), Tom Cooper, Sarah Peloquin (write-in) and Black River Falls City Council, Kylee Wusso (write-in).

Farrow said Tuesday’s election signaled that Republicans will win on Nov. 8. “Our grassroots operation is battle-tested and well-positioned.”

After Nov. 8, the next statewide election will be in April 2023 for the state Supreme Court seat of Justice Patience Roggensack, who will be 82 in July and who may not run again. That  Republican-versus-Democrat fight will be anything but non-partisan.

Steven Walters started covering the Capitol in November 1988. Contact him at

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