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How local political parties are influencing this spring's election in the Northwoods

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In the months and even years leading up to a presidential election, ad campaigns and partisan plugs are everywhere. That level of big-spending, hyper-political campaigning is generally less present in smaller, local elections, but following two years of the COVID pandemic, party politics are making a strong appearance in this spring’s election.

It’s days before the spring election, and local politicians are doing what they normally do —knocking on doors, putting signs in yards and encouraging their neighbors to show up at the polls.

But this year, races for seats on local boards look a little different.

From holding trainings on how to run for local office to endorsing candidates for school board, political parties have dug their teeth into Wisconsin’s spring election. Republican and Democratic parties across the state have put a lot of money and energy into candidates running for positions on school boards, city councils and county boards.

“They call them non-partisan elections, but let’s be honest with ourselves. The only thing that makes these elections non-partisan is they’re missing the donkey from the Democrat’s ads and the elephant from the Republican’s ads,” says Andy Loduha, chairman of the Republican Party of Oneida County.

Experts like Michael Ford, the Director of the Whitburn Center for Policy, Governance and Research at UW-Oshkosh, say this attitude is not unique, and it’s a consequence of the pandemic.

“Especially for school boards, there’s no doubt that the last two years have been difficult for parents, and I think that both the Republican and Democratic parties have seen this as a bit of an opportunity,” Ford says.

“Republicans saw this as an opportunity to gain back some of those voters who maybe leaned conservative, but were uncomfortable with Trumpism. They saw some of this dissatisfaction with public schools as an opening,” he says. “And I think the Democrats have been frustrated with some of their inability to gain traction at the state legislative level and have taken some of their partisan agenda and tried to bring that to the local level as a place to make gains.”

In Oneida County, political parties have gotten increasingly involved in local races in a number of ways.

For one, members of both the local Republican and Democratic parties actively found and encouraged people to run for office.

Oneida County Clerk Tracy Hartman says she thinks that is one reason the county has so many contested races this election cycle.

“People went out and found people to run,” she says. “When (candidates) were coming in and turning in their paperwork, I was hearing the same name being mentioned of this person spoke to me and League of Women Voters spoke to me. There are groups out there that have decided they want to get involved, and I think that’s great.”

Some of those same groups held trainings to teach novice candidates how to run a campaign.

Beyond encouraging conservative candidates to run, the Republican Party of Oneida County is also urging residents to vote for those candidates.

For the first time Oneida County Republican Party Chairman Andy Loduha can remember, the party has published a list highlighting conservative candidates in every race in the county.

“We have a big full-page ad in the paper, full-page. Not a little bitty ad, it’s a full-page ad,” he says. “People get confused in these elections. They’re not sure who to vote for. This is a voting guide, and these are the people we’ve identified, and we endorse.”

John Langeland, the acting chairman of the Oneida County Democratic Party, says this is a step too far.

“There used to be standards about this, and I think we’re still trying to behave as though this really is a non-partisan race,” he says.

Even so, UW-Oshkosh’s Michael Ford says Wisconsin’s Democrats are not taking a hands-off approach this election cycle.

“The narrative has been that the Republican party has really embraced it, and part of that is some of the culture war things coming out of debates over critical race theory,” Ford says. “But just yesterday I was looking at some campaign finance filings from this year’s school board cycle, and the Democrats are right there too.”

In some ways, Ford says, local political parties are responsible for getting more people invested in city and county governments, and that’s important.

“I think increased engagement is great,” he says. “School boards matter. City councils matter.”

Historically, about 40 percent of school board races are uncontested, according to Ford’s research. That’s not the case this election cycle.

However, Ford says increased participation is not always positive, especially if it comes with inflexible loyalty to a political party.

“Having explicit partisan involvement in non-partisan elections, that’s what I think is a terrible development,” he says. “It risks bringing some of that partisan dysfunction we’ve seen at the state level in Wisconsin, and at the federal level, and bringing that into local government.”

“There’s always going to be political disagreements at the local level, but when you introduce explicit party involvement, you are starting off your debates at a council with people having sides, having some of that entrenched conflict, and that is not a positive development.”

State government is based on partisan politics, Ford says. But that’s not the case locally, where community leaders have to work together to find solutions that benefit everyone.

“It’s really dangerous to start introducing that structural characteristic that’s not essential to governing into local government because you lose all the stuff that might be positive, like the efficiencies, and you’re only going to introduce the conflict,” he says. “It’s a really dangerous moment.”

It’s a moment that could dissipate as the pandemic eases its grip on society, or a moment that could become a new reality in rural American communities like ours.

This story was produced in partnership with Beyond the Headlines, a program of Wisconsin Humanities, and was funded in part by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's Democracy and the Informed Citizen initiative. BTH brings members of Wisconsin media and the public together to examine how we can be ready and informed to meet our communities’ challenges.

Erin Gottsacker joined WXPR in December 2020. As a morning edition host and reporter, Erin reports on the issues that matter most in the Northwoods.
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