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Five top takeaways from the midterms in Wisconsin

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Five top takeaways from the midterms in Wisconsin

Nov 10, 2022 | 5:15 pm ET
By Ruth Conniff
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Five top takeaway from the midterms in Wisconsin
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Gov. Tony Evers taking photos with UW-Madison students on State Street on Election Day, Nov. 8 2022 | Photo by Baylor Spears

This week’s midterm elections were most notable for what didn’t happen. There was no “shellacking” of Democrats. The much-talked-about red wave failed to materialize. Armed vigilantes did not descend in force on polling places to harass and intimidate voters. Neither, for the most part, did a flood of baseless accusations of fraud derail Democratic victories, endlessly prolonging races where Republicans had hinted they might refuse to concede their losses.

  • Democracy isn’t dead

Throughout the day in Wisconsin, local elections officials reported an orderly process. The clerk in one precinct told Examiner reporter Henry Redman everything was going so smoothly he forgot where he’d left his polling site’s trauma kit. 

Election observers in Milwaukee County held up the ballot count for a while, challenging and examining envelopes on Tuesday night, but after that temporary delay, Milwaukee got its votes submitted and counted.

Election skeptics who believed the 2020 presidential race was stolen by Democrats showed up to cast a careful eye on Wisconsin’s voting process and came away with a better understanding of how the process works.

Tim Michels, the Trump-picked GOP candidate for governor of Wisconsin, who had threatened not to concede if he lost, conceded after all when it became clear around midnight that incumbent Democratic Gov. Tony Evers had won the close race. Eric Toney, the Republican candidate for attorney general who made a name for himself prosecuting (Republican) voters for requesting ballots to a temporary address — and who promised during the campaign to empower district attorneys to chase doctors all over the state to enforce Wisconsin’s draconian 1849 abortion ban — conceded an even closer race to Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul.

All in all, Tuesday’s election defied predictions of doom, despair and chaos. Democracy worked. 

  • Voters in a 50/50 state rejected one-party rule

Wisconsin, a 50/50 state, re-elected its Democratic governor and its Republican majority in the Legislature, reinstalling divided government in our closely divided state. Voters turned down Republicans’ bid for a veto-proof supermajority that would have allowed the GOP to consolidate one-party rule.

Voters of all political persuasions are keenly aware that Wisconsin’s worst-in-the-nation partisan gerrymander already badly tilts the Legislature in Republicans’ favor. Thus, while a majority of voters, statewide, chose a Democratic governor, Democrats in the Legislature barely hung onto 11 seats out of 33 in the state Senate and 35 seats out of 99 in the Assembly — just two seats short of total GOP dominance.

It’s interesting that the glaring unfairness of this arrangement might have worked in Evers’ favor. According to state Sen. Melissa Sargent, Republican voters told her they were splitting their tickets, voting for Evers along with the GOP candidates to balance out the Republican legislative majority.

That might help explain the different outcome in Evers’ race and the U.S. Senate race, where incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Johnson fended off a challenge from Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes.

  • Milwaukee voters didn’t come out in force for Barnes

Low voter turnout in Milwaukee was a liability for Barnes, a Milwaukee native who would have been the first African American U.S. senator elected from a racially segregated state where most Black voters live in Milwaukee. While turnout reached presidential election levels in Dane County, causing a shortage of ballots early in the day, 40,000 fewer voters turned out in Milwaukee than in 2018. That was bad news for Barnes, who lost by only 27,000 votes — a margin of just 1%.

Race played a big role in the campaign — mostly in the form of racist ads from outside groups supporting Johnson that spuriously connected Barnes to recent incidents of violent crime. Barnes supporters fretted that his campaign could have done more to counter those attacks. Many longed to hear him and his surrogates call out Johnson and his allies for their hateful rhetoric, appealing to Wisconsinites’ sense of themselves as better than that. 

Poor turnout in Milwaukee is also a sign that Democrats generally have not made a strong connection with voters of color, as Isiah Holmes reported during the midterm campaigns. That’s a long-term problem for Democrats, who rely on votes from people of color but are not necessarily seen as fighting for them when it’s not election time.

On immigration reform, for example, “in general, there’s deep disappointment with the lack of progress and change under Democratic leadership,” Christine Neumann-Ortiz of the Milwaukee-based immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera told Holmes.

Parachuting in former President Barack Obama a week before the Nov. 8 election was not enough.

Especially after such a bruising, racist campaign, some people will draw the wrong lesson — that a Black candidate can’t win statewide in Wisconsin. But Obama won this state twice. And the 1% margin in Barnes’ race shows he could have done it, too. Another factor, mentioned by Democratic state Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) in a New York Times article, is the fact that Barnes, a young Democratic star whose rapid rise in state politics was not shepherded by Black community leaders in Milwaukee, lacks the kind of institutional support in the city that could help get out the vote. Black leaders in Milwaukee did not line up behind Barnes in the primary. Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson, former Democratic Party chair Martha Love and Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley all backed Barnes’ rival, Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry. “The progressives have been Mandela’s base from the day that he was elected — it really has never been the Black community,” Taylor told the Times. “Because of that, he does have to do a little bit more with what other people would have seen as his natural base.”

So does the Democratic party as a whole.

  • National Democrats gave up on winnable seats in Wisconsin

Wisconsin elected Derrick Van Orden, who attended the Jan. 6 insurrection, to the U.S. House of Representatives after the national Democratic party and independent expenditure groups reportedly pulled out of the 3rd Congressional District race. Even so, dairy farmer, former ag secretary and state Sen. Brad Pfaff finished within four points of Van Orden, losing his home district in the driftless area of Western Wisconsin, formerly held by Democratic Rep. Ron Kind, by a margin of 48 to 52. With a little more support, the Democrats might have held onto this House seat in a swing area that includes Eau Claire, LaCrosse, Twin Cities bedroom communities and many farms and small towns Pfaff knows well.

In the area around Janesville, former House Speaker Paul Ryan’s old stomping grounds, redistricting significantly improved the chances of flipping the 1st Congressional District from red to blue, creating what could be the most competitive Congressional district in the state. But without significant national support Ann Roe, who challenged Republican incumbent Brian Steil, had little chance. Steil outraised her by $1.5 million to $76,000 and won 55 to 44 in what could have been a pick-up for Democrats. That’s a big deal not just in Wisconsin but nationally, in the incredibly tight contest for control of the House of Representatives.

  • Major shifts are possible

In Wisconsin’s neighboring state of Michigan, Democrats swept the table, with Democrats Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson winning re-election and Democrats taking control of the state Legislature for the first time in 40 years. Voters also passed a referendum codifying abortion rights and another one enshrining the fundamental right to vote of all citizens.

If Wisconsin politics have turned nasty and divisive in recent years, we have nothing on Michigan, where armed militia members invaded the state Capitol building and a plot to kidnap and execute Whitmer resulted in multiple felony convictions. 

Yet our neighbor to the north is now firmly in Democratic control.

Why? Because of fair maps. Michigan voters passed a constitutional amendment adopting nonpartisan redistricting in 2018.

What happened there on Tuesday shows what is possible when citizens shake off minority rule and elect a government that represents the interests of the majority. That’s exactly what Republicans have been fighting so hard to prevent.

In April, an election that could change the makeup of the state Supreme Court could put Wisconsin on a similar path. If the Court’s Republican-friendly majority loses a seat, the justices could take up Wisconsin’s gerrymandered maps and impose a fairer system on our state.

That could dramatically change the course of politics here, ushering in a new era of functional democracy. 

Tuesday’s midterms showed that’s possible.