The floor of the Ute Pass Cultural Center quaked in time with the bass drum on Tuesday night as hundreds of Woodland Park citizens crowded into the room to await election results. By 6pm, an hour before polls closed, the venue was packed, the sounds of laughter and conversation competing only with the soulful voice of the band’s singer – who I finally realized was Erin O’Connell, the local parent-turned-activist who has led much of the charge against the town’s controversial school board. The anxiety and anticipation which grips the first hour of so many election night parties was absent, replaced by the palpable relief the community felt at having finally made it to this point.
In a county where Donald Trump won nearly 70% of the vote in 2020, a slate of candidates challenging the status quo had made it all the way to election day with a fighting chance.
The three candidates – Keegan Barkley, Seth Bryant, and Mike Knott – were onstage, thanking their friends and their supporters in the community, when the clock turned over to 7pm and the first results were announced. It was Barkley’s turn at the microphone when someone stood up from a table in the back of the room and shouted, “You’re all winning!”
Three days later, the outcome is less clear. Barkley appears to have definitively ousted the most bombastic incumbent, local Deputy District Attorney Dave Illingworth, a result which will doubtless have a positive impact on the board’s tone and direction. Bryant and Knott, however, ended up on the underside of the election night tally. Out of more than 9,000 votes cast in each race, Knott is currently trailing incumbent Cassie Kimbrell by 55 votes, with Bryant sitting 43 votes beneath incumbent Mick Bates. Unless all three of the challengers win, the balance of power on the board will not shift. The vote count will not be finalized until after the November 15th deadline for military absentee ballots. It’s unclear if any of the results will change.
Tuesday’s split decision in Woodland Park reflects the broader outcome of the school board races around the state this year. Though the contests are technically nonpartisan, school board candidates can almost always be identified as “conservative” or “liberal” based on the outside groups supporting their candidacies. Candidates backed by teachers’ unions, for instance, are typically considered more liberal, while candidates backed by groups like Americans for Prosperity or various organizations in the “parents’ rights” constellation are typically considered more conservative. In this year’s school board races, overt endorsements from state and local arms of the GOP made it even easier to identify the conservative candidates in nonpartisan races.
By those definitions, neither the conservatives nor the liberals claimed a resounding statewide victory from Tuesday night’s patchwork results. Within that patchwork, though, there were some surprising outcomes – most notably in Douglas County.
The Douglas County School District is the third-largest in the state, serving more than 62,000 students. It is also one of the state’s most controversial school districts, routinely making headlines on account of the school board’s penchant for violating transparency requirements, incurring enormous legal costs, and wading into conservative culture war issues. With conservatives holding a four-seat majority ahead of the elections, and only three seats up for grabs, changing the balance of power on the DCSD board was never going to be an option this year. At best, the challengers could build a meaningful opposition bloc by sweeping every seat – no small feat in conservative DougCo – shrinking the current board majority, and serving as a check on the incumbents’ worst impulses.
And that’s exactly what they did. Susan Meek, Brad Geiger, and Valerie Thompson – a slate of candidates opposed in lock-step by DougCo conservatives – won every available seat on the DCSD board.
“Tuesday’s election was a referendum on the actions of the ‘Kids First’ board majority,” the leadership team at DougCo Collective told me, using the DCSD majority’s preferred euphemism for parent’s rights. “We are reassured to see our community use its collective voice by electing dedicated, principled, and experienced leaders.”
DougCo Collective, like ad hoc moderate or liberal parents groups which have sprung up around the country to oppose the conservative parents’ rights movement, played a critical role in Tuesday’s surprise wins in Douglas County – not via traditional electioneering or campaign spending, but by doing the hard, year-round work of educating, organizing, and activating a community. Like the parents-turned-activists in Woodland Park, they are an example of organic active citizenry standing against astroturfed activism.
The other surprising outcome on Tuesday night was the performance of the broader parents’ rights movement – or underperformance, as the case may be. In recent months, Colorado Times Recorder journalists have covered a number of parents’-rights-affiliated entities engaged in a coordinated push to take over school board seats this year. Organizations like Truth & Liberty – run by the controversial Woodland Park-based faith healer, Andrew Wommack – and the Colorado Parent Advocacy Network released voter guides targeting dozens of districts. Colorado Republicans launched their own statewide endorsement list last month, branding it Smart Choice Colorado.
With the dust settling, I went back through those voter guides, endorsements, and recommendations, and tallied the performance of various parents’ rights groups. While the candidates backed by far-right activists performed well in some districts, the parents’ rights movement ultimately failed to chalk-up the kind of resounding victory it had been hoping for.
Ultimately, the Colorado GOP’s Smart Choice Colorado – led by Darcy Schoening, former group lead for the El Paso County chapter of Moms for Liberty – had the best overall showing. Smart Choice endorsed 105 candidates across 57 Colorado school districts. In the final tally, 47 of those candidates won, giving Smart Choice an overall win rate just shy of 45%.
Truth & Liberty’s win rate is slightly harder to tally. As ministry-affiliated 501(c)(3) organizations, Andrew Wommack’s political entities tend to avoid outright endorsing candidates. Instead, they prefer to release voter guides showing how the candidates in various districts feel about a series of politically charged culture war issues, and then distributing those voter guides to audiences whom they can trust to read between the lines. This year’s Truth & Liberty guides, released under the name Transform Colorado, asked candidates how they felt about issues like “transgenderism,” “boys in girls’ sports,” and whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement “the United States is not systematically and fundamentally racist.” Wommack’s preaching and many public pronouncements have made clear exactly what he believes are the correct answers to these questions.
Using the voter guide responses to identify those aligned with Truth & Liberty, I found 68 candidates across 30 districts. 27 of the 68 Truth & Liberty-aligned candidates won their races, for an overall win rate of 39.7%. Despite that low overall win rate, however, Truth & Liberty candidates still managed to seize majority control of districts in Fremont, Garfield, and El Paso County.
The Colorado Parent Advocacy Network (CPAN) has quickly made a name for itself as one of the most bombastic parents’ rights groups in the state. In September, CPAN spread disinformation which resulted in a bomb threat being called-in against three elementary schools in the Cherry Creek School District. After Tuesday night, CPAN may also have made a name for itself as the least effective parents’ rights group in the state. Of the 44 candidates the group endorsed across 19 districts, only 13 won – giving CPAN a 29.5% win rate for the year.
The worst night on the right, though, looks to have been had by Marge Klein’s clients. Klein, a campaign finance compliance consultant who serves as Lauren Boebert’s treasurer and whose presence on finance reports is often a good proxy for establishment Republican involvement in a race, worked with 18 school board candidates across a number of districts this year, including the DCSD conservatives. In the end, only one of those candidates won. If a narrow margin in one Buena Vista race breaks the other way, Klein’s candidates’ win rate will double from 5.5% to 11%.
The absence of a major wave of parents’ rights victories in Tuesday’s elections is a mercy. The worst-case scenario was avoided – but the parents’ rights movement is far from defeated. Far-right candidates seized power in new areas and further entrenched themselves in strongholds like El Paso County. Soon, they will start exercising power in the areas where they have it, and children will pay the price. When a school board dedicates all of its attention to pride flags and book bans, there’s little time to focus on achievement scores.
I say regrettably but with full confidence: there are more fights ahead.
The party was still going in Woodland Park when I left to drive back to Denver. Even as the margins shrunk, as victory became less assured, the mood held. While the split result is less than many in the community would have preferred, it is also more than they ever could have hoped for in the past, before their desire to protect their shared values turned them into organizers, activists, and agents for change.
The proof was in the margins themselves. I believe those margins should also hold an enormous amount of validation for the community of parents, teachers, and neighbors who made them possible. Far from the sort of 70-30 blowout one could have reasonably expected for a union-backed slate in a hyperconservative town, Keegan Barkley won. Seth Bryant and Mike Knott have fought themselves to within half of a percentage point of the dominant incumbents. All three outperformed Joe Biden, Jared Polis, and John Hickenlooper.
“I think the biggest take away from this election was how the community turned out to vote,” Barkley told me, noting that voter turnout in the small mountain town’s school board election had more than doubled since 2021. “I am motivated by those numbers.”
Regardless of how the final outcomes break, the people of Woodland Park have learned something about themselves: they have learned what they are capable of. They have learned how to challenge power. I don’t think they will forget it any time soon.
As I grabbed my coat, said my goodbyes, and fondly embraced the people I spent hundreds of hours talking to on the phone over the past year, one of them put a hand on my arm and looked me straight in the eye.
“You know,” she said, “We have municipal elections in the spring.”