A network of national conservative groups is influencing Wisconsin school board elections

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'It's a very organized, deliberate, well-backed campaign to push these three candidates,' one Waukesha County parent said.

On April 5, Wisconsin voters will head to the polls to vote for a number of candidates seeking local office. And while similar elections in years past were small-stakes, rarely drawing any awareness outside of their district, some elections in a handful of counties this year are stirring controversy and attracting national attention thanks to a coordinated national conservative effort to mobilize voters.  

The effort appears to be primarily directed at school board races across the state, where local conservative groups are using the fervor over critical race theory and COVID-19 safety measures to energize voters to rally behind Republican-backed candidates.

But according to an American Independent Foundation investigation, a handful of national conservative groups are behind the effort, using a similar playbook deployed in school board elections in other states last year to rally white suburban voters.

"There's a very aggressive campaign to install three very far-right Wisconsin GOP-backed candidates," said Jeff Kussow, a parent in the Waukesha School District and member of the steering committee of Waukesha United 4 Kids, a political action committee supporting progressive school board candidates. "It's a very organized, deliberate, well-backed campaign to push these three candidates."

The school board election in Waukesha County has grown into a controversial affair, and three conservative-backed school board candidates won the primary election last month: Karrie Kozlowski, Mark Borowski, and Marquell Moorer. In the April 5 general election, the three candidates vying for seats on the board will face off against incumbents Greg Deets and William Baumgart, along with candidate Sarah Harrison.

Kussow said that he and other parents first noticed organized right-wing activity in a school board election two cycles ago. In the subsequent election, he said, it ratcheted up. "We detected that there was more highly organized, highly funded activity going on last year," Kussow said. "We had two very long-time incumbents voted out and two very far-right new candidates voted in."

Kozlowski, Borowski, and Moorer are all being heavily backed by the Republican Party of Waukesha County, which has ties to a number of national conservative groups with a history of astroturfing — the practice of national political groups and companies funding local-sounding campaigns to create the illusion of an organic, grassroots movement.

Ahead of this year's elections, the Waukesha County GOP launched an initiative called WisRed "to elect conservative candidates in local elections." The initiative both supports conservative candidates through funds and campaign resources and also offers training for people to run for local office.

WisRed specifically links to resources from two conservative groups: American Majority and the Leadership Institute. The Leadership Institute, founded in 1979, has a long history of training conservative leaders and counts Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), former Vice President Mike Pence, and former George W. Bush strategist Karl Rove among its alumni. The Leadership Institute also has a documented history of connecting college conservative groups with right-wing dark money groups.

American Majority, a conservative nonprofit founded in 2008 to train political candidates and activists, has a similar history of getting involved in local elections in an attempt to create the illusion of grassroots support. Most recently, according to the New York Times, American Majority's executive director Matt Batzel helped an effort to recall school board members in nearby Mequon County last year over accusations that the members supported teaching critical race theory as part of the county's school curriculum.

Until recently, it was unusual for a local school board election to receive much attention, let alone the backing of national political organizations. Beyond the swell of support and resources from the national conservative groups connected to the Republican Party of Waukesha County, the three conservative school board candidates have also received crucial support from another source: Wisconsin's former Republican Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.

Last September, Kleefisch announced she would seek the state's Republican nomination for governor. As part of her strategy to clinch the GOP primary, Kleefisch has been supporting far-right candidates in small local elections — including school board races — through a combination of high-profile endorsements and appearances with candidates, along with financial support through her political action committee, Rebecca PAC. 

According to campaign finance filings, Rebecca PAC has given tens of thousands of dollars to local candidates throughout Wisconsin, many of them school board candidates. 

It's too soon to tell how much financial support Kleefisch's PAC has given in total to school board candidates running on the April 5 ticket, but according to her PAC's most recent campaign finance filing, on March 10 it gave $150 to each of the three candidates running in Waukesha County. Between Jan. 1 and March 21, her PAC gave more than $14,000 to local candidates across the state, most of whom are running for school board seats.

But that's just one part of the Kleefisch playbook. In early January, Kleefisch met with Waukesha parents at a town hall-style event to discuss school issues. Joining her at the event were Kelly Piacsek, a Waukesha school board member who was elected in 2021 with her support, and Scarlett Johnson, who led the school board recall attempt last year in the nearby Mequon-Thiensville School District. At the event, Kleefisch reportedly acknowledged the wariness of prospective school board candidates to run in the next election, but Piacsek shared some of her experiences and said she was encouraged by Kleefisch's support.

For Kussow, watching conservative groups and figures try to influence the Waukesha School Board elections has been worrisome. "Everything's become controversial," he said. "School board meetings went from noneventful 45-minute activities where nobody showed up. Now they're four-and-a-half hours long with people yelling at each other and school board members."

But beyond the school board meetings, Kussow is most worried about the cumulative effect these elections are having on teachers and other school officials. 

"One of the things that we're concerned about is how this is going to affect retention with teachers and staff," he said. "Everything is just so, so controversial and so tumultuous throughout the district right now that we're very concerned about a sudden exodus of teachers."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.