Updated to reflect unofficial final vote totals released Wednesday by the Douglas County Clerk’s Office.
In two counties where the Republican Party actively supported school board candidates, that influence apparently paid off in Douglas County but not in Jefferson County, where the GOP-backed slate lost.
This year marked the Jeffco GOP’s first foray into non-partisan school board races in recent memory – but it didn’t pay off in seats on the board governing the state’s largest school district.
A Republican election party at a Lakewood restaurant was subdued Tuesday night, with most folks heading home by 9 pm.
Candidate Preston Branaugh, who campaigned as one of “the dads” slate, said he was disappointed in the outcome and credited his defeat to being outspent.
“Having funds was a challenge for us,” Branaugh said.
Fellow GOP-backed candidate Jim Powers said the election shows “the union still controls the school board.”
The two were opposed by Jill Fellman, a former Jeffco teacher and administrator, and Lesley Dahlkemper, who had previously led a tax campaign for the district. Fellman and Dahlkemper registered their campaigns in April and quickly went to work, including soliciting contributions to outraise their opponents, who didn’t file campaign paperwork until August.
Fellman said she was surprised by the margin of victory and she believes a backlash against efforts to make the race partisan may have played a role.
“I had bipartisan support,” Fellman said from an election party that was still going strong at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday. “We had a positive message and we stuck to it: that we wanted to really promote teaching and learning, and students come first. When it started getting partisan, we said ‘No, we have a path and we’ll stay on it. This is not about a Republican or Democratic way to educate children.’ ”
By 9:45 p.m. Tuesday, Dahlkemper was nearing exhaustion, particularly after six hours of staffing phone banks earlier in the day. But she was giddy with joy over the election results.
“We felt Jeffco sent a strong message,” she said from her home, where supporters had gathered. “It came through loud and clear in tonight’s margins.”
The Jefferson County Education Association issued a press release titled “Jeffco elects two tough moms to school board.”
“Tonight’s results show that Jefferson County isn’t looking for vouchers or radical changes,” said JCEA President Kerrie Dallman. “They are looking for qualified leadership and fiscal acumen to see Jeffco through these tough fiscal times.”
The roles of the Republican Party and the teachers union, as well as vouchers, were themes throughout the campaigns in both Jefferson and Douglas counties.
Douglas County’s GOP party became active in school board races in 2009 and elected a four-member majority. Then the board, 18 months later, approved the state’s first district-run voucher pilot.
This year’s election was seen by many as a referendum on vouchers, with a pro-voucher candidate squaring off against anti-voucher challengers in each of three races. And in each race, the pro-voucher – and GOP-endorsed – candidate won.
“I think it’s a huge mandate for parental choice in public education,” said Dougco School Board President John Carson, who was elected as part of the 2009 GOP slate. “It’s a clean sweep, all three of our reform candidates won and they won decisively.”
The margin was closest between incumbent Justin Williams and challenger Susan McMahon, one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed to stop the district’s voucher pilot. The lawsuit was successful, with a Denver judge finding the pilot unconstitutional. The Dougco board is appealing that ruling.
“I am confident but you never know,” Williams said early in the evening, as he watched results at a GOP party held at a restaurant near the Park Meadows Mall. “I think, considering the will of the community, we’ll win.”
In the two other Dougco board races, candidate Kevin Larsen defeated Gail Frances while incumbent Craig Richardson defeated challengers Susan Meek and Kevin Reilly.
The campaigns of the GOP slates in both counties were interwined as EdNews revealed last week when a email from Dougco’s Republican Party chair surfaced. In it, Mark Baisley thanks supporters and tells them they’ll be calling into Jeffco on behalf of GOP candidates there through Election Day.
Baisley defended the strategy, saying, ” where we can help out our neighbors, yeah, we will do so.”
Tuesday night, at Dougco’s GOP party, Baisley had this to say to those who complained about the effort: Get used to it.
“You can count on us doing that next year with the state senate,” he said. “Our nominees will sail through in Douglas County without even breathing hard. We have amassed an army of volunteers that we will unleash on the entire state to win this state for conservatism.”
But the Jeffco school board candidates who were the target of that Dougco GOP effort said it smacked of desperation.
“It’s really kind of sad that our opponents are reaching out to Douglas County to get people to call into Jefferson County,” Fellman said.
The GOP is a formidable force in Douglas County where, as of Sept. 30, 51 percent of active voters were registered Republican compared to 21 percent Democrat and 28 percent unaffiliated. Dougco school board members represent a geographic area but they are elected countywide.
But Jeffco is a different story, with Republican voters less dominant than in Dougco.
Figures from the secretary of state’s office show, as of Sept. 30, 37 percent of Jeffco’s active voters are registered as Republicans compared to 32 percent Democrats and 30 percent unaffiliated. While school board members represent geographic areas, they are elected countywide.
Dahlkemper said that from the beginning, her campaign steering committee reflected the community — parents, seniors, business leaders, retired educators. A former Republican lawmaker, Norma Anderson, co-chaired the committee with a former Democratic lawmaker, Moe Keller.
“I brought together folks who didn’t always see eye to eye, who sometimes challenged my own thinking,” she said.
By the numbers: Vote tallies for candidates in Douglas and Jefferson counties
DOUGLAS COUNTY – DISTRICT A – 53,686 total votes
- Kevin Reilly – 8,686 votes – 16%
- Susan Meek – 20,498 votes – 38%
- Craig Richardson – 24,502 votes – 46%
DOUGLAS COUNTY – DISTRICT C – 52,862 total votes
- Gail Frances – 22,941 votes – 43%
- Kevin Larsen – 29,921 votes – 57%
DOUGLAS COUNTY – DISTRICT F – 53,129 total votes
- Susan McMahon – 25,942 votes – 48%
- Justin Williams – 27,187 votes – 52%
* * * * *
JEFFERSON COUNTY – DISTRICT 3 – 116,108 total votes
- Preston Branaugh – 45,508 votes – 39%
- Jill Fellman – 70,600 votes – 61%
JEFFERSON COUNTY – DISTRICT 4 – 115,097 total votes
- Lesley Dahlkemper – 64,583 votes – 56%
- Jim Powers – 50,514 votes – 44%
Sources: Douglas County results are unofficial final results reported by the Douglas County Clerk’s Office at 4:44 p.m. Wednesday; Jefferson County results are unofficial final results reported by the Jefferson County Clerk’s Office at 1:36 a.m. Wednesday.