Dane County's political clout

For the passionate progressive voters who saturate Madison and the rest of Dane County, the recent good news has come in waves.

First was the wee-hours election night call that Democratic Gov. Tony Evers had prevailed and would continue to serve as a heroic bulwark against the wave of populist, right-wing extremism in Wisconsin.

That elation was tempered by disgust that Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson survived the challenge by Mandela Barnes, the Democratic lieutenant governor. Johnson’s loony support of Donald Trump’s Big Lie — among many other problems — made him appear to be among the most vulnerable Senate incumbents, so many Barnes backers groused that he should have run a better campaign.

As a side note, there was no consensus on what that better campaign would have entailed and many of those critics fail to note that Barnes, an African American in an overwhelmingly white state, was barraged by racially themed attack ads. Can’t imagine that wasn’t a factor in the outcome.

Progressives then got further relief when it became clear that despite having the nation’s most egregious gerrymandering of political boundaries, Wisconsin Republicans failed to attain the legislative supermajorities needed to override Evers’ vetoes of their extreme agenda.

The subsequent trickle of national headlines was uplifting as well, as Democrats retained their U.S. Senate majority and only narrowly lost the U.S. House, bucking historical patterns. Election deniers aligned with Trump mostly lost.

Against that backdrop, I spoke with Barry Burden, a respected expert on Wisconsin and national politics and a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Burden also shared his post-election analysis with the Rotary Club of Madison this week.

A central takeaway, he said, was that Wisconsin is more politically divided than ever. Evers won by a bigger margin this time even though he prevailed in four fewer counties than four years ago.

Blue counties got bluer, red counties got redder, and Democrats should thank their lucky stars that Dane County’s population is growing. Even though Milwaukee County is losing voters, it also remains crucial.

“Dane and Milwaukee are obviously important to Democrats but in different ways,” Burden said. “Dane County is a vote machine. The population is growing, so there are simply more people here from one election to the next and the degree to which they vote Democratic seems to increase in every election cycle.

“In this election cycle, we’re talking about pushing 80 percent of votes in Dane County going to Tony Evers. So, that’s tremendous and the turnout is extremely high. Typically, one of the highest in the state.”

He added, “So, you have those three things together. Population growth, high turnout in that growth, and then high Democratic margins of the people who participate. So, Dane County is the most important fuel the Democrats have to win statewide elections.”

Contrast that with Milwaukee County, where about 45,000 fewer people voted there than four years ago, he said. “That’s a sign of worry for Democrats,” Burden said. “That seems to be driven by the general population decrease.

“So, there’s fewer votes to be had there. Despite that, Evers and Barnes did so well in Milwaukee County in terms of the percentage of the vote they actually netted more votes there than four years ago when more people voted.”

Burden shared other election takeaways.

Democracy fared well: Not only did election deniers do poorly here and nationwide, he said, but “losing candidates graciously conceded in Wisconsin and other states. In most cases, they did it pretty quickly and congratulated the victor. There were no major disruptions, no major lawsuits. It was a successful election season in a very difficult environment. That’s great news. We’re not out of the woods for 2024, but it puts us on a better path than we were on.”

Results were, in sum, a somewhat surprising stalemate: Evers and Johnson, for example, were both reelected, and the typical national pattern of the party holding the presidency losing badly in the midterms did not happen. “It was surprising,” Burden said. “It was a real deviation from the longer historic pattern” of bigger swings. This year’s anti-abortion decision by the U.S. Supreme Court seemed to energize Democratic voters more than the GOP anticipated, Burden said.

Evers was not punished for governing: Evers increased his margin of victory from 2018 against the historical pattern. “There is this term in the study of politics around the world called the ‘cost of governing,’ ” Burden said. “The incumbent seems to pay a price just for doing their job. Tony Evers did not pay that price. It was a strange kind of victory, with his (geographic) base shrinking,” but he did so well in places like Dane County that he still prevailed.

Hopes for a two-way Evers-Barnes “coattail” effect fell short: In 2018, Burden recalled that Evers and Barnes on one ticket complemented one another. Evers was reassuring to swing voters and Barnes inspired and energized younger people. Many hoped for that dynamic this time. Instead, Evers won by 3½-percentage points and Barnes lost by 1 point. “So, there’s about a 4½-point gap between the two of them,” Burden said. “The trouble for Barnes is he did not keep up with Evers in the western and central parts of the state.”

WOW counties are becoming slightly less red: The affluent and traditionally Republican suburban “WOW” counties outside Milwaukee — Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington — still support GOP candidates, but by smaller margins. Burden pointed to the abortion decision as well as a trend that started with the rise of Trump. “Discomfort with Trump from 2016 onward was really apparent. Those suburbs dropped on the Republican side by several percentage points in 2016 and have stayed at that lower level,” Burden said.

Gerrymandering remains the central narrative: “It really sets the Legislature apart from every other office in Wisconsin,” Burden said. “The statewide offices are actually responsive to voter preferences. It’s a purple state and those races are competitive. The Legislature is uncompetitive. It doesn’t much matter whether Democrats romp or Republicans have a good year. Republicans will end up with 60-plus percent of seats in the Assembly and Senate regardless. It is completely unresponsive to swings in public opinion.”

So what are my top takeaways from Burden’s takeaways?

First, the feverish passion of Madison and Dane County voters is more vital to democracy than it has ever been.

Second, people need constant reminding about our anti-democratic Legislature. That affects everything and should be kept front and center.

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