Opinion: Three of four upstart candidates for Nebraska State Board of Education notch big wins in midterm election

Spurred on by outrageous radicalism coming from members of the State Board of Education in Nebraska, four ordinary citizens made the decision to challenge the long-entrenched board establishment for…

Spurred on by outrageous radicalism coming from members of the State Board of Education in Nebraska, four ordinary citizens made the decision to challenge the long-entrenched board establishment for their seats.

Because their beliefs and platforms closely aligned with one another, these four candidates opted to campaign with and for each other, adopting the moniker “Dream Team” as they stormed through their districts, shining a very unflattering light on the beliefs and behavior of incumbent board members.

In Tuesday’s election the Dream Team upended the decades-long stranglehold big education has had on Nebraska’s students, as three of the four grassroots candidates won handily.

The fourth candidate, Marni Hodgen, appears to have suffered a narrow loss of about 2,000 votes against a well-funded and establishment-backed incumbent, Deborah Neary.

Kirk Penner, a current member of the board, was recently appointed to fill a vacancy by Nebraska’s outgoing Gov. Pete Ricketts. Tuesday night, Penner won the seat outright with an impressive 10-point margin, defeating Helen Raikes, a well-known name in Nebraska Democratic Party politics. 

Not to be outdone, Penner’s fellow Dream Teamer Sherry Jones doubled the number of votes cast for her opponent, winning a 66% to 33% victory. 

As impressive as those wins are, Elizabeth Tegtmeier notched the greatest victory of the night, crushing her incumbent opponent Robin Stevens 70% to 30%. Stevens, a self-described conservative, nonetheless supported the board’s progressives routinely. 

Meanwhile, Neary’s win will indeed be pyrrhic, as the glare of publicity has also revealed her radicalism and stirred tremendous opposition to her vision for education in Nebraska. The election of the other three conservative candidates will likely frustrate Neary’s agenda, leaving her unable to cobble together a majority without enlisting the aid of at least one of the newly elected members. 

Neary and her allies ran a scorched-earth campaign, savaging their opponents as holding “outrageous, contemptible views.” They mocked the moniker of Dream Team, suggesting “Extreme Team” would be more appropriate.  

The group of embattled progressive candidates made little mention of their own positions on issues such as gender ideology, sex education standards and Critical Race Theory, realizing the voters of Nebraska would find those beliefs repulsive. Instead, their campaigns were long on clichéd bromides and notably short on specifics, except when attacking their opponents.  

Given Neary’s behavior during the campaign, it’s all but certain the bridges she burned in recent months will remain collapsed and smoldering, further complicating her tenure on the board. 

Another byproduct of these victories is the emergence of a new group, the Protect Nebraska Children Coalition, a grassroots organization that aligned behind each of the upstart candidates with money and volunteer support.  

The announcement of highly controversial comprehensive sex education curricula for Nebraska schoolchildren brought the coalition together against it. 

The revised sex ed standards featured age-inappropriate subjects such as gender fluidity instruction and the teaching of “child sexual rights or how to ‘consent’ to sexual acts,” beginning as early as the 1st grade. 

Initially just a small group of concerned parents and grandparents, in little more than a year the Protect Nebraska Children Coalition grew into a major conservative political player in Nebraska, boasting a large and motivated following. 

The group formed a separate entity, the PNC-PAC, for supporting candidates. PNC-PAC reported cash contributions and receipts for the election cycle totaling just over $31,000. 

The lack of a large war chest belies PNC’s true strength, which lies in its 22,000 strong membership, thousands of whom are active and enthusiastic volunteers campaigning on behalf of its endorsed candidates. 

PNC’s entry into the fray spurred a vitriolic response from the educational establishment, with heated rhetoric such as “hate group,” “Christofascists” and “right-wing extremists” being used against the PNC Coalition and the candidates it supports. 

Tuesday’s election results represent a firm rejection of the radical ideas supported by the teachers’ union in Nebraska and the progressive candidates it backed.