WICHITA, Kansas — The notion of low-key elections in Kansas during odd-numbered years — largely spared the attack campaigns, mysterious money and blue-versus-red rancor — now feels so quaint.
Instead, school board races carry talking points about race and mask orders that would feel at home on Fox News or MSNBC. In one city in central Kansas, residents find themselves in an emotional battle over how much power local officials should have in the midst of a public health crisis. And voters in the state’s capital find one candidate on the ballot for city council with ties to a white supremacist group linked to the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol.
So now people running for local office — jobs where it can often prove hard to recruit volunteers to serve, much less withstand public attack — find themselves in increasingly partisan-like contests settled by an ever more polarized electorate.
School board meetings across Kansas have become a battleground for protests about mask mandates, critical race theory and other issues.
That means races for hundreds of school board seats — usually low-interest, low-turnout affairs — draw more attention than usual this year.
The Project 1776 PAC, a New York-based political action committee, is backing dozens of candidates in seven states, including Kansas. The group has endorsed 10 candidates for school board races in Shawnee Mission, Blue Valley, Olathe and Lansing.
Project 1776 opposes the teaching of critical race theory or anything related to the 1619 Project, a New York Times initiative that aims to reframe American history by focusing on the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans.
In Wichita, the state’s largest school district has four seats up for grabs — a board majority — on Tuesday.
Incumbents have faced criticism for more than a year over COVID-19 protocols, including decisions to start last school year with remote-only classes for secondary students and to require masks in schools.
They’re facing a slate of challengers recruited and endorsed by the Sedgwick County Republican Party who oppose mask mandates.
Both the incumbents and challengers in Wichita are campaigning as a group, which is unusual for school board races, and both are getting support from larger organizations.
A campaign flier for the incumbents was paid for by the Bluestem Fund PAC, which gets contributions from the National Education Association and other unions.
During a recent gathering at a parking lot in east Wichita, Republican state Rep. Patrick Penn rallied the challengers and their supporters. He said Kansas school districts will get more than $8 billion in federal funding for COVID relief, and they’re spending it on the wrong things.
“What kind of stuff am I talking about? I’m talking about critical race theory,” Penn said. “I’m talking about anything that can be associated with depression, anti-bullying — they call it social-emotional learning. That’s what the school board wants to push out there.”
Judith Deedy, executive director of Game On For Kansas Schools, says she’s troubled by the shift toward partisan elections all over the state.
“There’s a lot of anger and frustration, particularly with COVID, and so the more traditional school board members are maybe more susceptible to being picked off right now,” she said.“It’s misguided anger or misdirected anger at the people who’ve been in there and having to make some really difficult decisions.”
In Salina, a town of about 50,000 in the middle of the state, an effort to limit the emergency powers of the city commission is sparking heated debate.
A group of residents angered by a mask mandate and restrictions imposed on businesses during the height of the pandemic mounted a petition drive over the summer to get the question on the Nov. 2 ballot.
“This is about a lot of citizens that feel like the government overreached,” said Kevin Korb, the leader of the group — Salina Freedom — during a recent discussion of the issue on Salina radio station KSAL.
“The city commissioners are there to represent us,” he said, “not rule over us like kings.”
A rival group, Salinans for Facts, is spearheading an effort to defeat the measure. It includes several former mayors and commissioners who argue the proposed ordinance would usurp the home-rule powers granted the city in the Kansas Constitution.
“This isn’t about freedom,” said former Commissioner Jon Blanchard on the KSAL broadcast. “This is about how we best respond to public emergencies.”
Passage of the ordinance, Blanchard said, would tie the city’s hands when dealing with future health crises.
“I fail to see how that makes anybody more free and it certainly does not make people safer,” he said.
A court challenge could prevent the ordinance from taking effect even if voters approve it. Saline County District Court Judge Paul Hickman has heard arguments in the case earlier this month but is waiting until after the election to issue a ruling.
A candidate in Topeka’s city council race has deep-rooted connections to the Proud Boys.
Canada labeled the Proud Boys as a terrorist organization, and the group fundraised legal defense funds for people arrested in the Capitol insurrection.
Joel Campbell, who says he left the group, was a third-degree member with a tattoo professing his allegiance to the group. He is running against incumbent Neil Dobler for Topeka’s a district city council seat.
Campbell was previously investigated by the state’s highway patrol for threats against Governor Laura Kelly. In a now-deleted video he, without evidence, linked Kelly to running a child trafficking ring out of a pizza shop in Salina.
“(Kelly) is wearing the red shoes,” Campbell said in the video. “They are literally throwing this (expletive) in our face. … The leader of Kansas, (expletive) Kansas’ governor, is in on this (expletive).”
Campbell’s social media also follows a “super straight" account.
A TikTok user coined the term super straight after saying they didn't want to date transgender people. The post then gained popularity and became closely tied with transphobic posts. It has since been banned from the social media app TikTok because it is “associated with hateful behavior.”
Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.