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Conservative school board candidates ride DeSantis endorsements to victory

While conservatives endorsed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and Moms for Liberty triumphed, a majority of Florida school board candidates backed by state Democrats lost.
Image: Ron DeSantis speaks at a podium during the inaugural Moms For Liberty Summit on July 15, 2022 in Tampa, Fla.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Moms for Liberty Summit in Tampa, Fla., on July 15.Octavio Jones / Getty Images

Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who won re-election in a landslide Tuesday, threw his political weight behind 30 school board candidates this election cycle. 

Nearly all of them won. 

It was unusual to see a sitting governor wade into what are officially nonpartisan races that historically have been overlooked by big donors and the national media. But DeSantis is widely considered an aspirational candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, and the endorsements show how culture war issues will likely be the backbone of his bid in 2024, political experts said. 

In his victory speech Tuesday night, DeSantis declared that “Florida is where woke goes to die.” 

With most of the school board candidates backed by Democrats losing in their races this year, it’s another sign of Florida’s transition from a swing state to a reliably red one. 

The newly elected school board members DeSantis endorsed will also assist in implementing his education policies, including legislation he has signed that limits how race and gender identity can be discussed in schools.

“School boards often influence policy and curriculum more than state or national bodies,” said Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, a history professor at The New School, in New York, who has researched political disputes over cultural issues in education. “So the presence of a significant number of DeSantis-backed candidates likely means that communities will see more energy behind the initiatives he has made central to his campaign — curbing progressive curricula that center race, gender and sexuality.”

Lindsey Curnutte, a press secretary for the DeSantis campaign, said in a statement the governor “led a coalition of parents to establish students-first, parents’ rights school board governance across the state. The DeSantis Education Agenda was on the ballot, and the voters made their voice clear: We want education, not indoctrination.”

Nineteen of the DeSantis-backed candidates had already claimed victory during the primaries in August. In Florida, because school board races are nonpartisan, if candidates capture at least 50% of the vote in the primary, they don’t need to compete in the November elections.

Six more DeSantis-backed candidates won their races Tuesday, according to county election websites.

The conservative activist group Moms for Liberty, which has positioned itself as a close ally of DeSantis, gave $250 donations to 51 school board candidates across the state, campaign finance records show. Of those, 28 won, while 23 lost. 

That stands in contrast to the results for the Florida Democratic Party, which supported 30 school board candidates, only nine of whom won seats this year. Out of seven candidates endorsed by Charlie Crist — a former Republican governor-turned-Democratic congressman who lost to DeSantis in the governor’s race — three won and four lost.

Many of the races were decided by a few thousand votes or less. Stephanie Busin, whom DeSantis endorsed for the school board in Hendry County, population 40,000, appears to have won by just 13 votes, according to the county’s election website. In Indian River County, population 160,000, just 7,000 votes separated winner Jacqueline Rosario, who was backed by Moms for Liberty, DeSantis and other GOP officials, from Cindy Gibbs, who was endorsed by Crist and Florida Democrats. 

Conservative parents and political groups spearheaded protests nationwide in the past year over school Covid safety protocols and teaching about race and sexuality. Riding a wave of conservative parent anger, Republicans in several states targeted school board races, with mixed results.

The Texas GOP spent more than $16,000 on mailers promoting five candidates in the Austin suburbs, according to campaign finance reports filed with the state. Each lost by wide margins in a suburban county that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott narrowly won. However, GOP candidates running against progressive ideas captured seats on the State Board of Education, which sets curriculum standards.

Progressive activists said they have been frustrated that Democratic officials haven’t devoted more attention and resources to supporting school board candidates and rebutting conservative complaints around education issues.

“Republicans for decades have focused on electing folks at the local level, at the state level, and really invested in that, and Democrats often forget that there are elections at that level,” said Lanae Erickson, the senior vice president for social policy, education and politics at Third Way, a left-leaning think tank.

Erickson said Democrats have focused on national and statewide races, while the GOP absorbed state legislatures, “but now they’re taking it a step further for school boards and city councils and other local races.”

Jack Schneider, an education historian at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, said exploiting the culture wars around education can be effective in campaigns, because few people spend time in classrooms to verify what’s going on in them. 

However, he said, many conservatives who have recently won school board seats are in for a “rude awakening” over the limits of their authority, what kind of curriculum is actually being used and the other duties assigned to them.

“In many cases, these people promised that they would weed out wrongdoers, conduct investigations, change curricula. I think what they will find is not only is there no there there, but they do not have the power to do a lot of the things that they’ve said they’re going to do,” Schneider said. “They’ll use the power they have to be disruptive, to slow things down, to engage in basically what amounts to a show trial, and ultimately they’re going to come up short.”