Jul 14, 2022 - Politics

Democrats brace for school board battle

Illustration of an apple with an I Voted sticker.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Nashville Democrats are circling the wagons on the eve of early voting in the city's first-ever partisan school board elections.

  • In the election's home stretch, the local party apparatus is raising money to rally around its four candidates. The county Democratic Party plans to help with campaign mail and get-out-the-vote efforts.

Why it matters: A perfect storm of political conditions is reshaping races that initially seemed to favor Democrats.

  • The low-information, low-turnout nature of school board races means a small number of voters could tilt the balance in determining who holds four board seats for the next four years.

Between the lines: Nashville is a heavily Democratic city that voted for President Biden over former President Trump 64% to 32% in 2020.

  • But because there are only a handful of competitive Democratic legislative races on the Aug. 4 ballot, some in the party fear that left-leaning voters might stay home.

The intrigue: On the other hand, conditions seem ripe for a high Republican turnout.

  • The competitive GOP primary for the newly drawn District 5 Congressional seat is expected to drive conservative voters to the polls.
  • The new boundary encompasses three of the four school districts on the ballot.

School board member Rachael Anne Elrod says she believes the congressional primary's turnout will have an impact on her race.

  • Even though Elrod's South Nashville district favored Biden by a wide margin, she tells Axios, "I still feel like I need to persuade voters." Elrod adds that campaign help from the county party hasn't come yet.

Reality check: In each of the four races, Democrats enjoyed better fundraising numbers than their opponents, though District 6 board member Fran Bush's most recent financial disclosure is not yet publicly available.

The upcoming election also dovetails with a broad — and successful — conservative effort to shape education policies across the country.

  • Tennessee legislators passed a law last year enabling county political parties to choose to hold partisan primary elections for school board races.
  • After the county Republican Party voted to do so, Nashville Democrats followed suit.

What they're saying: "Nationally and locally, Republicans insist on politicizing almost every aspect of American life. Nonetheless, the Davidson County Democratic Party is committed to helping these school board candidates running on the Democratic ticket," Davidson County Democratic Party chair Lee Jones tells Axios.

The other side: Republican Todd Pembroke, who is challenging Elrod, is running on a platform echoing themes that have animated conservative campaigns elsewhere.

  • In a candidate questionnaire, Pembroke said he favors "reinstating traditional forms of curriculum and focusing on the basics, while removing CRT, common core and sexuality."
  • During a recent candidate forum, Pembroke responded to a question about school safety by saying he thinks teachers should have the option of arming themselves in the classroom.
  • Pembroke clarified to Axios that his top priority is empowering parents to be the ones to set education policy. "We need to shift our focus away from these distractions and back to literacy, mathematics, science."

Pembroke says he hopes conservative interest in the District 5 race will help his chances.

  • "That's the one issue I'm trying to push, is simply getting Republicans to the polls."
  • Pembroke says he's received advice, but not more formal help from the county Republicans.

Go deeper: learn more about each of the candidates here. Early voting begins tomorrow.

The matchups in the Aug. 4 school board races are:

  • District 2: incumbent Rachael Anne Elrod (Democrat) vs. Edward Arnold (Independent) vs. Todd Pembroke (Republican)
  • District 4: Berthena Nabaa-McKinney (D) vs. Kelli Phillips (R)
  • District 6: incumbent Fran Bush (I) vs. Cheryl D. Mayes (D)
  • District 8: Erin O'Hara Block (D) vs. Amy Pate (I)

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that the school board election will take place on Aug. 4.


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