Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Wisconsin Superintendent Race Rated 'Safe Evers'

Hands-down the strangest regularly scheduled statewide election date is the first Tuesday of April in the year after a presidential election. Every four years, Wisconsin voters use their annual "Spring Election" to choose a new superintendent of public instruction—the only constitutional officer in the nation who never appears on a November ballot. And the next incarnation of this political Leap Day will soon be upon us.

On Tuesday, April 4, Wisconsinites will go the polls to choose either Tony Evers or Lowell Holtz to be their state superintendent for the next four years. Although the position is nonpartisan, the campaign has featured all the drama and wedge issues of a high-profile gubernatorial race—attack ads, backroom deals, and alleged conflicts of interest among them. That makes it a worthy pit stop for my ongoing project to handicap not just superintendent elections, but all constitutional-officer elections nationwide. Here's the state of play in the Badger State:

Heading into the campaign, Evers might have had good reason to doubt his ability to win a third term at the helm of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. The incumbent has enraged Republicans in Madison with his liberal views, including his support for Common Core. His traditional backers in the Wisconsin Democratic Party appear weaker than ever, having failed to carry the state for either Hillary Clinton or Russ Feingold (both expected to win handily) last November. One of Evers's staunchest supporters in his first campaign, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, has been weakened by Wisconsin's anti-labor Act 10. National trends have also been dire for Democratic state superintendents: after their latest decimation on the local level in 2016, Democrats no longer hold a single superintendent post chosen by partisan election, and Evers is one of just three left-leaning nonpartisan superintendents.

Meanwhile, conservative education advocates threatened to spend big money to elect a Republican identifier to the seat. Two filed to run in the February jungle primary: Holtz, the former superintendent of the Beliot School District, and John Humphries, an educational consultant. The two couldn't seem to get out of each other's way: just before the primary, Humphries alleged that Holtz had offered him a $150,000-a-year job in his administration and a private driver if Holtz would drop out and endorse him. Each accused the other of being a liar; only Evers stayed above the fray. In the first round of voting on February 21, Evers took a full 70% of the vote, with Holtz at 23% and Humphries at 7%. Evers and Holtz thus advanced to the April runoff.

With Humphries out of the race, Holtz, a supporter of school vouchers, hoped to attract national education-reform groups (and their money) to his cause with an issues-driven campaign. Instead, though, it was a liberal group, One Wisconsin Now, that made the biggest impact on the race with a well-coordinated opposition-research effort. Through a series of open-records requests, One Wisconsin Now unearthed a slow drip of stories questioning Holtz's competence and ethics. First, it was revealed that Holtz used his school (and therefore government) email address to solicit political support. Then it turned out that, as superintendent of the Whitnall School District, he donated some of the district's old football bleachers to the private school his own children attended. Performance evaluations revealed that Holtz had retired after a falling-out with the school board over his poor communication skills. The same problems appeared evident in his previous gig at Beloit, where he was reprimanded for a "lack of communication with the Board regarding significant matters," including his attempt to hire his wife for a position with the district without fully briefing the board.

Evers seized on Holtz's ethical shortcomings in his first TV ads this week, and they are likely to keep coming: as of the last campaign-finance reports in mid-February, Evers had $238,000 cash on hand compared to Holtz's $15,000. Although the conservative has reported $64,500 more in late contributions since then, it remains to be seen whether it will be enough for him to go up on TV—and it is certainly not enough to match Evers's resources.

No polls have been released on the race, but given Evers's dominating showing in the jungle primary, he appears poised to defeat Evers by at least double digits, and perhaps up to 40 points. What's more, Evers's strong lead in fundraising and Holtz's terrible press make a conservative comeback unlikely. There's no reason to rate this race anything less than Safe Evers.

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