For conservatives running for school boards in California, any dream of a "red wave" proved to be a dud as Republican candidates, including a member of an extremist right-wing group, lost in most races across the state.
But even some unsuccessful campaigns garnered enough votes to feed into an already acute sense of political polarization that was once missing from local school board races. And conservative groups feel they've found a playbook for winning more.
Jeffrey "Erik" Perrine, a member of the Proud Boys extremist group, lost his bid to win a seat on the San Juan Unified school board. But more than 2,600 people in Sacramento County voted for him — 18% of the vote in his district, according to the latest election update.
Perrine campaigned on "the nuclear family" and promoted anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ sentiments, labeling schools as "indoctrination centers."
In Orange County, Kira Davis, a managing editor of the conservative political blog Red State, is poised to lose in the race for a seat on the Capistrano Unified school board but has secured more than 9,000 votes, or about 40%.
Davis, who has railed against lessons on race and called being transgender "a social sickness," took to Fox News last week, calling for "a determined and concerted effort to own America's school boards."
Conservative groups such as the American Council and Moms for Liberty recruited and endorsed dozens of candidates across the state and helped bankroll wins in Placer, Sacramento and San Diego counties, turning red parts of California even redder by way of school board races. They are hoping to harness any lingering COVID-19 frustrations and have adopted a broad "parental rights" motto that, on its face, would seem to appeal to even Democratic voters.
"It's short-sighted to say, well, they didn't win. What this is telling us is still frightening," said Tracie Stafford, chair of the Sacramento County Democratic Party, who is urging voters to pay attention to the once-uncontroversial races. "If they did that well this time, they will regroup and refocus and create a strategy that actually might bring them a lot closer."
The American Council, which launched in 2020 aiming to recruit political candidates with a "biblical worldview," is already prepping for the next election and views California's nearly 1,000 school boards as one way into political power in a place where a Republican has not won a race statewide in 16 years.
The majority of the $426,000 raised by the organization went to California school board candidates, according to Tanner Di Bella, president and founder, who noted that those races are cheaper than higher offices.
Di Bella said he thinks there's a pathway for conservatives to win local races even in a largely Democratic state like California.
"If our desire as an organization is to influence culture, to influence the things that we're seeing in California that we don't like," Di Bella said. "This has a much more direct and immediate impact on families and kids than talking about 2024 in the White House."
When asked how parents of LGBTQ children can feel safe in districts overseen by school boards whose members are endorsed by groups openly critical of policies designed to protect them, Di Bella, who does not have children, pointed to anti-discrimination laws but said that boards need conservatives in order to be "more well rounded."
"It's not my desire to elect individuals that would discriminate against people based on those characteristics, but I do believe there's a biblical model for human sexuality," he said.
But a conservative push for school boards could also mean that the races garner more attention than ever from the left.
When slates of conservative candidates ran in Contra Costa County, the residents of Rossmoor, a retirement community of about 10,000 in Walnut Creek, got involved despite most of their children having aged out of K-12 schools years ago.
“For many, many years, nobody paid attention to the school board races. We were asleep at the wheel thinking this would never happen here, but it’s happening here and it’s going to keep happening, and we’re going to have to keep fighting it,” said Susan Hildreth, president of the group Democrats of Rossmoor. “I think we really woke up.”
Nick Bennett, president of the Roseville Junction Democratic Club, said school board races had not been the top priority in the past, but he saw more engagement from both sides this election. Even with an influx of San Francisco Bay Area residents, it's not a surprise to see Republican wins in Placer County, he said, but there was "far more coordination" and "increasing politicization."
"I grew up in Roseville and have never seen so many yard signs supporting school board candidates," he said, adding that newly elected school board members were backed by organizations that support book banning and "hold views that are harmful to the LGBTQ students."
Even small school board races are on the radar of gay rights groups like Equality California. Spokesperson Samuel Garrett-Pate said the organization is planning to become more involved in 2024.
School boards have the crucial duty of ensuring that California laws regarding comprehensive sex education and transgender rights are followed, he said.
"The issue is all of those bills are implemented on the local level. They're only as impactful as they are implemented by school boards," he said. "What we're dealing with is a number of candidates essentially promising to violate California law to go after LGBTQ students. There are LGBTQ students in all of these districts; kids don't decide where they grow up."
Conservatives failed to secure seats on boards in affluent Contra Costa County, where registered Democrats far outnumber Republicans, but the race had a grip on the East Bay area, in part because of a $250 donation from Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and the subject of Jan. 6 insurrection investigations regarding false election claims.
Mark Woolway, a technology executive with ties to major Republican donor Peter Thiel, who was part of former President Trump's White House transition team in 2016, unsuccessfully ran for a spot on the Acalanes Union High School District.
Woolway, a registered Libertarian and parent, denied that his campaign was part of a larger effort to "take over" school boards. He lamented that his affiliation with Trump, whom he said he would not support in 2024, overshadowed the local race.
"This was just literally about trying to make schools better," Woolway said. "I never really understood what a school board was or gave it a thought before COVID shined a light on the lack of leadership."
Despite widespread losses, the California GOP was celebrating wins in Republican strongholds and said it would "absolutely continue" its "Parent Revolt" program, which helps train candidates to run for school boards and "give parents a voice."
"Not only are these recruitment efforts a benefit for California children as candidates run to repair our broken schools, but it also serves as an opportunity to build a bench of leaders who will be shaping policy at all levels for years to come," said Ellie Hockenbury, spokesperson for the California Republican Party.
Tanya Kravchuk, a registered Republican and a mother of four, secured a spot on the San Juan Unified school board, promoting parents' "guaranteed legal rights" to be involved in students' education.
While campaigning, Kravchuk said her constituents named a new bill to provide out-of-state transgender students protection from prosecution as a top concern. Several voters called doctor-recommended medical treatment for trans youths "child mutilation," she said.
"It was surprising to me. My particular district is very elderly, so the fact that was top of mind for people — not safe classrooms or the fact our kids can't read or do math at grade level — I think it reflects people's concerns," she said.
Other conservative-endorsed winners include Jean Pagnone, a firearms instructor and president of the local Republican Women Federated chapter, and Jonathan Zachreson, who led a parent movement against COVID-19 shutdowns and vaccine mandates.
Josh Hoover, a member of the Folsom Cordova Unified school board, ran for the state Assembly and, according to the latest returns, had pulled ahead in a tight contest with incumbent Ken Cooley (D-Rancho Cordova).
He maintains that school board interest is not about political party power but about giving parents more rights.
"I do think this message that we need to put parents first is really resonating," Hoover said. "I don't think any of them were doing it to take over school boards for the Republican Party; they were doing it to take back the school boards for their families."
Julie Marsh, a faculty director at the nonpartisan research firm Policy Analysis of California Education, said that while big districts like Los Angeles Unified have long garnered national political donations, the shift to interest in smaller races is new. The issues at many public school board debates have increasingly seeped onto bigger debate stages, she said.
“Extreme discourse about critical race theory and parental rights and the teaching of racism and gender identity, all of those things we were hearing in the races for positions up on the ballot for state-level positions as well,” she said. “I don't think it’s over. I think it’s part of the playbook.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.