Headed into Tuesday’s election, there was a plausible case that Wisconsin Democrats could lose the governor’s office, and with it, their power to do anything in state government.
By Wednesday morning, it was clear that Gov. Tony Evers had won his bid for a second term, and the Democratic Party appeared to be in a position of strength for pivotal elections next year and beyond.
Evers won his race over Republican challenger Tim Michels by about 3 percentage points on the same night that Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson narrowly defeated his Democratic challenger, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes.
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“I’ve been trying to wrap my arms around that,” Evers said Wednesday during a press conference at Georgia O’Keeffe Middle School in Madison. “That there are people in the state of Wisconsin that voted for me and voted for Ron Johnson. But at the end of the day, I also know that there are issues that transcend politics.”
Here’s a closer look at some of the factors that propelled Evers to victory.
Dane County is growing, and so is its share of the statewide Democratic vote
Dane County has always been one of the foundations of political power for Democrats, but Evers exceeded expectations among Dane County voters.
“Dane County absolutely roared,” said Democratic consultant Joe Zepecki.
Four years ago — when Dane County was critical to his win over former Republican Gov. Scott Walker — Evers captured 75 percent of the vote, beating Walker there by a margin of about 150,000 votes.
This year, Evers captured nearly 79 percent of the vote in Dane County, winning by about 174,000 votes over Michels.
“I don’t think it knocks anybody over with surprise that the blue part of the state is getting bluer,” Zepecki said. “And the fact that it’s growing is really, really good for Democrats.”
Evers’ margin in Dane County grew partly because received more votes there than he did four years ago, but also because Michels received less support there than Walker did in 2018.
Republican consultant Bill McCoshen said he thought Michels’ campaign took the Dane County market for granted, which he called a “significant” mistake.
“Dane County is one of the top three vote-producing counties for a Republican candidate,” McCoshen said. “Many people forget that. So you can’t take it for granted and just say, ‘Well, that’s blue territory. I’m not going to compete there.’ Because look what happens.”
The suburbs in the Donald Trump era continue their shift away from Republicans
Perhaps just as concerning for Republicans was the continued erosion of part of their base in the once reliably conservative Milwaukee suburbs.
The “WOW” counties of Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington once carried Republicans like Walker to statewide victories. Republicans are still winning there, but ever since the 2016 election, their margins continue to shrink.
The last time Walker won a statewide election in 2014, Democrats received just 27 percent of the vote in Waukesha County. This year, Evers hit nearly 40 percent there — a high-water mark for Democrats running for governor or president over the past decade.
In Ozaukee, the Democratic share of the vote went from 29 percent in 2014 to 44 percent this year.
It’s not a lost cause for Republicans — Johnson performed better in the WOW counties and narrowly won his race for U.S. Senate.
But McCoshen said the drop-off for Republicans in suburban counties was real, and said Trump was partly to blame.
“We’re gonna need a different candidate and a different message in (2024) to appeal to suburban voters for sure,” McCoshen said. “I mean, I think that’s proven itself out.”
Zepecki stopped short of calling the Democratic gains in suburban counties “permanent,” but he said the past six years of elections had shown Trump’s affect on suburban voters. He expected that trend to continue into the 2024 presidential campaign, where Trump is likely to be a candidate.
“I have no doubt that he will have a primary, but I have a hard time seeing him losing a primary and that could be a real problem for Republicans going forward,” Zepecki said.
Trump received more than 1.6 million votes in Wisconsin in the 2020 election, generating more support among rural voters as his share of the suburban vote lagged. Trump lost in 2020 by less than 21,000 votes.
Young voters in the post-Roe era turned out
In a midterm election where most voters said the economy was their top concern, it appeared the issue of abortion motivated people at the polls, especially young voters.
Evers said he saw that firsthand while he was campaigning.
“We spent a lot of time on UW campuses,” Evers said “And whether it was a male student or a female student, I can tell you, that was a big deal. It was a big deal for young people.”
McCoshen said he was surprised there wasn’t higher turnout among Republicans voters who were upset about the economy.
“If any single group negated a red wave, it’s young voters,” McCoshen said. “No doubt about that.”
Zepecki said that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision striking down Roe v. Wade reframed the abortion issue, especially for younger voters.
“I think that the notion that that generation is going to grow up with fewer rights and freedoms than previous generations really woke them up,” Zepecki said.
National exit polling showed voters age 18-29 favored Democrats by a 28 point margin — the highest of any age group.
The factors that helped Democrats win this election could be in place for the next ones
Should Trump run again for president in 2024, there’s little suggesting that some of the trends that worked in Democrats’ favor this year will change.
But there’s another election before then that will be hugely consequential for state government: a race for a state Supreme Court seat that could tip the ideological balance of the court from conservative to liberal.
That race will be held April 5, less than five months from now. Given the stakes, it’s expected to be the most expensive Supreme Court contest in state history.
“Republicans got to figure out their ground game here in the next 40 days,” McCoshen said. “Not the next five months. They don’t have that much time. Democrats are outperforming us on the ground and particularly in Dane County.”
Zepecki said that if Evers and Barnes had both won their races, it might give Republicans an edge in the April election because their voters would likely be more motivated. The same would have held true for Democratic voters had Johnson and Michels both won.
But with Evers and Johnson both winning, Zepecki said the result of the April court race is anyone’s guess.
“The fact that we have a split decision, which is so rare in Wisconsin politics, particularly in recent history, means I think we’re probably headed for another jump ball election in just a few months,” Zepecki said.
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