MADISON -- Superintendent Tony Evers easily won a third term as Wisconsin's top education official over an underfunded conservative opponent dogged by questions over whether he broke state law by using a public school account to send campaign-related emails.
The win keeps Evers in place as the only Democratic-backed statewide official in a meaningful office. Even though the race is officially nonpartisan, Evers had strong support from Democrats along with state and national teachers' unions who favored his positions in support of increased funding for public schools and opposition to private school vouchers.
Evers won by a roughly 3-to-1 margin over Lowell Holtz based on unofficial results.
"A lot of people decided to be pro-public schools," Evers said, saying the big win was not a mandate. "I think people want to stand up for their public schools and this is one way to do it."
While Evers pledged to stand up for what he called progressive issues, like keeping guns out of classrooms and supporting transgender rights, he said his wide election win showed that Republicans also supported him.
"I've been somebody that has reached out to Republicans and had some success with this governor," Evers said. "I think there are Republicans who are supporting me out there. They may not want to say it out loud."
Holtz's candidacy never got off the ground as he struggled with low fundraising, accusations that he tried to bribe another candidate, questions about his work history and whether he broke state law by sending campaign-related emails from his Whitnall schools account where he worked as superintendent before retiring last year.
Holtz said in a statement that he was grateful the campaign gave him a chance to "raise serious issues regarding the condition of education in Wisconsin" and he hoped his candidacy "broadened the way people view education reform."
Dave Rymaszewski, 64, of West Allis said he voted for Evers on the advice of friends of who were teachers in the Milwaukee school district.
"Holtz is another one of those conservative nut wing cases and we don't want him as state superintendent," Rymaszewski said.
Retired insurance executive Steve Haroldson, 70, of Mount Horeb said he saw Holtz as the only one of the two ready to make drastic changes to address racial achievement gaps.
"Evers has been in there long enough," Haroldson said. "He's too much aligned with the teachers' union to consider the types of changes necessary to improve minorities' performance."
But, for Holtz backers, it wasn't meant to be.
Evers, 65, will continue running the state Department of Public Instruction, which administers K-12 education policy, curriculum and programs, as well as state and federal aid for all of Wisconsin's 424 public school districts.
Evers and Holtz disagreed on almost every major issue that's come up in the campaign. Evers opposes expanding the private school choice program and supports Common Core academic standards, increasing funding for public schools and addressing teacher shortages across the state.
Holtz wanted to repeal Common Core standards and create a new test not linked to them and supports the choice program.
Both candidates supported Walker's budget sending $650 million more to schools. But they disagreed on Walker's requirement that the bulk of that money be tied to schools that require employees to pay at least 12 percent of their health care costs. Evers opposes the provision, while Holtz backs it.
Holtz focused his campaign on the charge that Evers hasn't done enough to close Wisconsin's worst-in-the-nation achievement gap. Evers argued some improvements have been made, while more work needs to be done.
Holtz had to deal with questions about a conversation he had with a former candidate in the race who alleged that he offered him a six-figure state job, a driver and broad authority to take over the state's five largest districts if he dropped his candidacy.
Holtz denied that he offered a bribe and the state Elections Commission said he had not broken the law. A liberal advocacy group also asked district attorneys to investigate campaign-related emails Holtz sent on his Whitnall school account while he still worked for the district.
Evers had support from teachers' unions and Democrats in the officially nonpartisan race. He supports Common Core academic standards, opposes private school vouchers and backs Gov. Scott Walker's budget proposal to increase K-12 funding by $650 million.
Evers also defended his record trying to close the achievement gap, which stood as the worst in the nation.