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Special summer election offers ‘tea leaves’ about voting patterns in the coveted WOW counties

The reliably Republican Milwaukee suburbs have seen their politics shift in recent cycles

A sign that says "VOTING ENTRANCE"
Voters walk to an early voting location Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020, at Waukesha City Hall. Angela Major/WPR

A special election on Tuesday will fill a vacant seat in the Wisconsin State Assembly — and could offer some clues about the changing electoral nature of Milwaukee’s coveted suburbs.

The 24th Assembly District — which covers parts of Ozaukee and Washington counties, plus a sliver of Waukesha County, to the north and west of Milwaukee — has been vacant since May, when its previous representative was sworn into a state Senate seat.

The district as it’s currently drawn is reliably Republican, said Charles Franklin, who directs the Marquette Law School Poll and is an expert in Wisconsin state politics. He said that reflects the nature of the broader area, known collectively as the WOW counties.

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“For a Democrat to win that seat would be a substantial surprise. It would be outperforming the (November) governor’s race, it would be outperforming the (state) Supreme Court race,” he said.

But Franklin said the margin of victory could offer perspective on how the area is changing.

In the broadly conservative area, margins between Republican and Democratic candidates have become somewhat slimmer in recent years.The WOW counties’ support for a Republican presidential candidate has declined since 2012 when GOP nominee Mitt Romney won the region by about 35 percentage points. Former President Donald Trump still won the WOW counties, but his margins were narrower: a cumulative 28 points in 2016 and 23 points in 2020. That decline has also been reflected in statewide races for governor and Supreme Court.

Dan Knodl, R-Germantown, previously occupied the 24th District Assembly seat since 2009. He won a special election for state Senate in April.

Two candidates are now running to replace him. Republican Paul Melotik is a businessperson who now sits on the Ozaukee County Board and Grafton Town Board. Democrat Bob Tatterson is a businessperson from Mequon.

Tuesday’s election isn’t a clear bellwether of the future of suburban politics. It’s a special election in the middle of July. And unlike the special election that Knodl won in April, which determined whether Republicans would hold a veto-proof majority in the state Senate, there are no statewide stakes to this race. All of this suggests that turnout will be low.

The district is also less competitive than it used to be due to redistricting. In 2020 — the last election under the old district lines — Knodl won his race by just 3 percentage points. After the district was redrawn, Knodl won his 2022 Assembly race by a much larger margin, defeating Tatterson by about 22 points.

Nevertheless, both parties have something to learn from Tuesday’s outcome, Franklin said.

“For Republicans, continued strength or even a growth in strength in this district might be a signal that some of the challenges they’ve faced — especially in the Donald Trump era — maybe are beginning to settle or reverse there,” he said. “So there is a tea leaf here to read on both sides of the equation. Are Republicans recovering a little bit in the suburbs, or are Democrats continuing to make gains in the suburbs?

The 24th Assembly District includes the villages of Germantown, Grafton and Menomonee Falls.

Tatterson has been endorsed by Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin, and has voiced support for Gov. Tony Evers’ proposed tax cut for families earning less than $150,000, alternative energy investment and public school funding.

Melotik has expressed support for the Republican-authored tax cut that was largely vetoed by Evers, and has called for small-government conservative policies.

According to campaign filings, Melotik raised $37,251 in individual and committee contributions from the state Republican Party, plus $21,434 in the final days in in-kind donations from the state Republican Party and the state’s Republican Assembly Campaign Committee.

Tatterson has reported $103,612 raised in that same period, from individuals and organizations including the Wisconsin Education Association Council.

Whoever wins will join a Wisconsin Assembly where Republicans currently hold a 63-35 majority.