Disappointed in local elections, Sheboygan County GOP plans a year-round awareness campaign. Democrats want a focus on issues, not parties.
POLITICS: Maya Hilty, Sheboygan Press
Published 5:01am CT May 3, 2023
Republican Party and Democratic Party leaders share their 5 takeaways from the April election.
SHEBOYGAN - After a year of organizing, Republican Party of Sheboygan County members gathered on election night in early April, prepared to celebrate.
They had a conservative candidate on the ballot for every local government seat up for election in Sheboygan, including half the city council and one-third of the school board.
“We went into the night thinking there was a chance that we could really almost sweep,” party chairman Russ Otten told the Sheboygan Press.
“It was a very shocking night, actually. We were shocked that not one person got in.”
Sheboygan voters re-elected every city council incumbent, which included only one of the five candidates supported by the county Republican Party.
In addition, of six candidates running for the Sheboygan Area School District board, the three backed by the GOP lost by a narrow margin.
The Sheboygan Press talked to the county Republican and Democratic Party leaders about April election results and the year ahead. Here are their five takeaways.
1. The state Supreme Court race energized liberal voters.
The state Supreme Court race between Janet Protasiewicz and Dan Kelly increased turnout in April elections, both Otten and Maeve Quinn, Sheboygan County Democratic Party co-chair, said.
Otten cited the statewide race as one reason for conservative candidates’ losses in Sheboygan, saying people who turned out to vote for Protasiewicz impacted down-ballot races.
Quinn said the race gave people an important opportunity to share their views on a number of issues — including fair maps, reproductive rights, public school funding and voting rights — all impacted by state Supreme Court decisions.
2. The GOP chairman views close races for school board as a reflection of emotional issues.
A lot of people became particularly invested in Sheboygan’s school board races, Otten said.
The races were close — with three candidates winning a seat on the board by a 2%-5% margin of votes. Otten viewed that as a success of party efforts to raise awareness of school board issues through ads two weeks before the election.
“I think a lot of people just really don’t know that much of what is going on in public schools because I do believe if they did, they would be shocked,” Otten said, referencing, for example, what some people called obscene materials removed from South High School’s library in January.
“When you went to school board meetings about masking and COVID, there was a large turnout because parents were concerned about their kids being masked all day and their health,” he said. “But now when it comes to transgenderism and the whole movement potentially becoming part of the curriculum, I think parents don’t understand it and maybe aren’t even aware of what’s happening.”
The three candidates elected supported gay and transgender representation in district curricula, while the other three said in public comments that schools should not teach about transgender identities, which they called a controversial ideology.
The county GOP does not have a party platform on LGBTQ issues, Otten said, but the party believes no one should have more rights than anyone else.
“We see this as moving in that direction: that someone who is transgender is now being afforded things within the school district that would never have been afforded to anybody else," he said.
3. Voters elected candidates who paid attention to bigger issues, the Democratic Party co-chair says.
Quinn was impressed by the high quality of candidates for local positions this year, who clearly explained their background and priorities, she said.
“I think the citizens really responded to people focusing on the serious, important issues that have a great impact on our school district and our community,” she said. “(Those candidates who were elected) focused their attention on those bigger issues.”
For city council incumbents, that meant focusing on issues like road projects, affordable housing and public safety.
For the successful school board candidates, that meant focusing on how to support an excellent education for all students, she said.
“They really wanted to represent everyone in the community, not just some people. That was my takeaway,” Quinn said.
Spring elections are officially nonpartisan, meaning candidates don’t run with a party label, and Quinn firmly believes they should be nonpartisan.
For local office, the focus should be on supporting smart, thoughtful people who want to contribute in their community, she said. Candidates should share who they are, what they think the issues are and how they would address those issues with a collaborative mindset, she added.
Otten said there’s “no such thing as a nonpartisan race.”
“I think (party involvement in local elections) is healthy, I really do,” he said. “Because people don’t have to declare Democrat versus Republican, that’s not what it’s about. But there are principles that are closely aligned to each party. … We support those who share our values.”
4. County GOP will focus a year-round awareness campaign on local issues.
The county GOP is putting 90% of its effort and money on a local level, Otten said.
A group called “How to Win Spring Elections” met every month last year to strategize and support local candidates’ campaigns and will do so again this year, he said. This year, the party wants to build awareness of local issues further out from elections.
“We know the issues, but we don’t begin talking about them until February. That’s kind of crazy,” he said.
“We’re going to begin an awareness campaign that runs throughout the year as opposed to just a three-month or two-month block of time,” he added. “There’s just too much at stake to wait and then try to inform everybody at the last minute. I think we just need to constantly build what’s happening as a narrative in the community.”
Otten thinks city leadership is “far left” of the common taxpayer.
“We’re at a crossroads right now, I think, in terms of where we go as a community," Otten said. "Do we proceed down a path where many of the traditional values of Sheboygan — that, in my estimation, have made us a great city — are tossed out because they don’t fit an agenda of a small, but growing, and small, but vocal, group? As people become aware, they’ll have to decide.”
5. Voter turnout should be higher. That means voting needs to be easier, not harder, Democratic party co-chair says.
Voter turnout in the city and county of Sheboygan doubled from 2022 to 2023.
But still, only about half of registered voters cast a ballot in April.
“Why isn’t that like 95%, right?” Quinn said. “I don’t want to discount the enormous work that took place to make voting accessible for 52% of our voters, but, you know, I wonder where the people were in our county that did not vote and why that was.”
Her mind wanders to many barriers to voting, such as the difficulty of getting registered if you don’t have a Wisconsin driver’s license.
“It is astonishing to me that it is becoming hard and harder for people to exercise their right to vote,” she said.
“Many of these new (voting) requirements stem from a belief that people are trying to cheat and somehow people are trying to vote when they’re not supposed to,” she continued. “And you know, when you have over 20,000 people not even registered and over 30,000 people not even voting, the real voter fraud in my mind is the fact that we have made it too hard for people to actively vote so that their voices can be heard in our democracy.”