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Primary results in schools race and two legislative districts set up April spring election

Pecatonica School District Superintendent Jill Underly and former Brown Deer School District Superintendent Deborah Kerr will face off in the April 6 spring general election after winning the top two spots in the state schools superintendent primary.

Jill Underly

Underly edged out Kerr as the two advanced out of the low-turnout seven-way Feb. 16 primary.

Assistant State Superintendent Sheila Briggs was a distant third, followed by Shandowlyon Hendricks-Williams, Troy Gunderson, Steve Krull and Joe Fenrick.

Underly said in a statement on primary night, “We now face a choice: elect someone who wants to make sure every student has a great school and real opportunity, or someone who wants to divide us, waste our precious resources and pick winners and losers among our students. I am the candidate that is firmly on the side of children in our schools, our students’ parents, and our educators.”

Kerr told WisPolitics.com her primary focus leading up to the election will be on creating a plan to open schools safely and figuring out how to get schools more funding to help with implementing that plan.

Deborah Kerr

“We are experiencing tremendous learning loss because of the pandemic and now we have got to deal with all the trauma and the mental health issues of our children moving forward,” Kerr said. “I want to start leveraging at the federal level so it frees up funding from the state level because our schools and our school boards are going to need extra help to make sure that we can reopen sensibly and safely.”

Underly snagged WEAC’s endorsement ahead of the primary, and the PAC for the state’s largest teachers union gave her campaign $18,000. The liberal A Better Wisconsin Together also did a $78,000 digital ad praising Underly and saying she would “fight voucher schools that deprive public schools of resources and put our children first.”

Kerr was viewed as one of the most pro-voucher candidates in the race, and she attracted support from Republicans and school choice supporters even as she declared herself a Dem in the final forums ahead of the primary. Kerr pumped at least $50,000 into mail and other ads, while she did a small TV buy in the closing days in which she promised to work with all districts and stakeholders in Wisconsin and proclaimed there was “no room for politics in education.”

Some other post-primary developments could shape the race, which will decide the successor to current Department of Public Instruction chief Carolyn Stanford Taylor. Taylor was appointed to the job by Tony Evers after he became governor, but she declined to run for a full term.

 

— In late February, Underly received endorsements from at least three of her former opponents: former West Salem School District Superintendent Troy Gunderson, Assistant State Superintendent Sheila Briggs and Milwaukee Public Schools Garland Elementary Principal Steve Krull.

 

— Kerr’s campaign manager exited, telling WisPolitics.com he can’t provide the general election strategy she will need to win.

Brandon Savage has worked almost exclusively with Dem candidates and groups in his career. But with Jill Underly securing the endorsement of WEAC and the state Dem Party in the race, insiders thought Kerr’s best chance to win would be to run a conservative campaign.

Savage said Kerr has appealed to Republicans, independents and some Dems. But when the Dem vote is “consumed to a large degree, it almost forces a campaign to the right.”

“Moving forward she is going to require a general election strategy that I am not able to provide,” Savage said.

 

— Kerr was dealing with a controversy over her racially insensitive tweet. A Twitter user asked when “was the first time someone called you the n- word?” Kerr responded, “I was 16 in high school and white – my lips were bigger than most and that was the reference given to me.”

Kerr deleted the tweet and her account, saying she never intended for the statement to be considered racist and was only trying to be part of the discussion of racism.

See election results.

See snapshot profiles of the candidates.

 

Winners of GOP primaries in two open legislative districts poised to win Republican-leaning seats

The winners of two GOP primaries on Feb. 16 are poised to take over vacant Republican-leaning seats in the Legislature on April 6.

— State Rep. John Jagler, R-Watertown, cruised to the GOP nomination in the 13th Senate District, putting him in a strong position to win the heavily Republican seat in the April 6 special election.

John Jagler

Jagler easily dispatched former GOP state Rep. Don Pridemore and Todd Menzel, the CEO of a towing and recovery business.

Jagler said his victory was a reflection of the results he’s delivered for the 37th Assembly District, where he’s served since 2013. He also said Gov. Tony Evers’ budget released moments before the polls closed shows that Act 10 and billions in new spending will be on the ballot in April.

“I think it’s a pretty good sign that they wanted me there to be a check on Gov. Evers moving forward,” Jagler said primary night, Feb. 16. “You saw what he unveiled tonight in the budget proposal. We need someone to stand up, and I have a proven record doing that against Gov. Evers.”

Jagler will face Dem Melissa Winker, who got 41.5 percent of the vote in November as she lost a bid for an Assembly seat that’s part of the Senate district. The winner of that April 6 election will replace former GOP Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who resigned to join Congress. Former President Trump won the Senate seat in November with 58.5 percent of the vote.

Outside groups spent $118,900 to back Jagler on canvassing, radio, digital and mail, according to filings with the Ethics Commission. Those that backed him included the Republican State Leadership Committee and the Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin. He was also endorsed by the NRA, and the Wisconsin Realtors Association did an issue ad campaign praising him. That effort wasn’t reported to the state.

Pridemore also faced questions about his residency. His old Assembly seat is in a different Senate district, and he was renting a home from the Hartford mayor, who endorsed his campaign.

Pridemore, who announced plans to run for the Senate seat even before Fitzgerald won his House race, said the “establishment won” in the primary and suggested Dems who turned out for the state superintendent race backed Jagler.

“It was really a battle between endorsements and postcards vs. grassroots conservatives,” Pridemore said. “All I hear lately is Republicans are looking more like Democrats every day and they just don’t have any fight in them.”

See election results.

 

— Oconto businessman Elijah Behnke carried the GOP primary for the 89th Assembly District’s special election.

Behnke beat real estate broker Mike Kunesh and businesswoman Debbie Jacques as well as university instructor Mike Schneider and farmer David Kamps.

Behnke told WisPolitics.com he was surprised he had a “domination victory,” but he praised his team’s ground game for the win.

Elijah Behnke

“People saw that I cared the most and I put the most effort into it,” he said. “And when it was below zero, I was jogging to 100 houses a day. So hard work pays off, and it’s that Wisconsin work ethic that will do me well in Madison.”

Behnke said he feels confident he’ll carry the seat in the next election against Dem candidate Karl Jaeger, who got 31.2 percent of the vote when he ran against former Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, in November. Nygren resigned from his position last fall shortly after winning reelection to take a job as CEO of the Wisconsin Association of Health Plans.

Former President Trump won the district with 64.7 percent of the vote in November.

Kunesh got the most outside backing ahead of the primary, according to filings with the state Ethics Commission.

The Wisconsin Realtors Political Fund spent $150,000 backing Kunesh on radio, mail and digital ads. Meanwhile, the Wisconsinites for Liberty Fund spent $20,000 on mail attacking Jacques as “Wisconsin’s Swamp Dweller.” A mail piece shared with WisPolitics.com accused her of “Unethical behavior. Gaming the taxpayers. Defrauding small business.”

Meanwhile, Jacques’ campaign sent a mailer hitting Kunesh that a vote for “‘Krooked Kunesh’ is a vote for the Madison swamp.” The mailer alleged an ethics complaint against Kunesh filed with the Green Bay district attorney could result in a felony charge.

Pre-primary fundraising reports showed Behnke trailed both Kunesh and Jacques in fundraising over the first month of the year. But insiders had credited him for hitting doors the hardest.

“I feel like my chances are very good because, going into this, I wasn’t the big money candidate,” Behnke said. “I had no political experience and I took them down swinging.”

See results.