Discover more from The Recombobulation Area
Did gerrymandering help give Wisconsin Republicans a victory in the 8th Senate District?
The lines changed for the suburban seat in the latest round of redistricting, making it an even more GOP-leaning. And Dan Knodl won by less than 2%.
The Recombobulation Area is a
six-time TEN-TIME Milwaukee Press Club award-winningweekly opinion column and online publication written and published by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
While Janet Protasiewicz won in a landslide over Daniel Kelly in the race for Wisconsin Supreme Court, making the Spring Election overall a massive, earth-shaking win for Democrats in Wisconsin, Republicans did notch a key victory in the special election for the 8th Senate District.
State Rep. Dan Knodl of Germantown won a narrow victory over Democratic challenger Jodi Habush Sinykin, keeping the seat in GOP control. This was a seat that was solidly Republican for decades, represented by recently retired State Senator Alberta Darling, who served in that seat since 1992. Republicans were favored to retain this seat, and they did.
But it was remarkably close. Knodl won by less than 2%, or about 1,300 votes. This turned out to be a much tighter race than many were expecting, and Habush Sinykin’s campaign should be proud of this effort.
While Knodl ultimately prevailed, the results themselves didn’t dominate much of the post-election conversation. Instead, the chatter was about how the State Senate supermajority that Republicans had secured with Knodl’s win could potentially pave the way for them to impeach Justice-elect Protasiewicz.
In the home stretch of the campaign, this is something Knodl came right out and said he wanted to do. It seems like an outrageous thing to say, but this is the type of power-hungry absurdity we’ve come to expect from legislative Republicans, who continue to work to deny the will of the people (which is part of the reason why checks and balances from the state Supreme Court’s new liberal majority are so needed).
Republican Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu said the following day that he wouldn’t pursue impeachment, and there are a whole bunch of other reasons why this is unlikely to go forward, too. We’ve become so accustomed to Republican shenanigans like this in Wisconsin (lame-duck session, anyone?) that we’re always looking for another shoe to drop, but the Protasiewicz victory is a seismic one, and there’s little Republicans could realistically do here aside from lick their wounds and flail about looking for some sort of escape hatch. This isn’t going to be an escape hatch.
What this election in the 8th does represent, however, is yet another warning to the GOP that they are continuing to lose ground in the Milwaukee area suburbs, their longtime stronghold. The fact that this race was as close as it was means that regardless of whether or not maps are redrawn in time for 2024 — now possible with that new liberal majority on the court, though the timeline could be tight — this will be a competitive seat. And this seat will be up for re-election in 2024.
When we wrote about this race a couple months ago, we noted how quickly things have been shifting in this district.
We have also noted how much redistricting changed the composition of this district. And here’s where the crux of our question about the why of these election results come into play.
The 8th Senate District is a weird one. It includes pieces of Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Waukesha and Washington Counties. Somehow, it includes both Fox Point in northeastern Milwaukee County and the Erin Hills Golf Course in southwestern Washington County. Compact and contiguous, this is not.
This was also among the State Senate districts to see the most significant shifts to the right on Republican-introduced maps for the 2020s.
This district is one that went from a 7.5% GOP advantage under old maps to a 12.5% GOP advantage under new maps, according to a seat lean formula developed by Marquette University’s John D. Johnson, which averages results from the 2016 presidential, 2018 gubernatorial and 2020 presidential elections. Those results didn’t account for the continued shift seen in the 2022 midterms, though, when neither Ron Johnson nor Tim Michels were able to get 55% of the vote in the district, despite winning a majority. The district is shifting, of course.
As we identified when these Republican maps were introduced, the dubious “least change” principle adopted by the conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court was not one applied universally around Wisconsin in this round of redistricting. They pushed their extreme partisan gerrymander even further in regions that were becoming more favorable to Democrats – namely, the Milwaukee suburbs.
In fact, no Assembly representative in the state benefited more from these changes than one Dan Knodl, whose district in the 24th shifted from GOP+3 to GOP+24, per that seat lean formula. Joe Biden won that district by 4% in 2020, but after redistricting, was made to be one won by Donald Trump by 16%. It’s pretty shameless.
Sure enough, in 2020, Knodl narrowly defeated Democrat Emily Siegrist (51.5% to 48.5%) in one of the closer Assembly races in the state, but then in 2022 under new maps, defeated Democrat Bob Tatterson 61% to 39%.
Now, it sure seems like Knodl has benefited from that 2021 redistricting cycle yet again.
If you take a closer look at where exactly this district changed from the maps from the 2010s to the ones used last year, you’ll see that what essentially happened was that several Milwaukee County wards were traded for ones in Washington County, and a few things within Waukesha County shifted around.
One municipality in particular stands out: Glendale.
Glendale is among the north shore suburbs that has long had a reliable Democratic majority, but has been shifting even further to the left in recent election cycles. In 2012, about 60% of voters in Glendale backed Tammy Baldwin for Senate and Tom Barrett for governor, and last fall, more than 74% of voters went for Tony Evers and 73% went for Mandela Barnes.
In the race for Wisconsin Supreme Court last week, more than 77% of its votes went for Janet Protasiewicz.
But Glendale is no longer part of the 8th Senate District.
Not all of Glendale was part of this district under old maps, either. But a significant chunk of the city was moved into the 4th Senate District, currently represented by Lena Taylor. In fact, the Assembly district that includes this part of Glendale is now represented by Darrin Madison, a Democratic Socialist.
I asked John Johnson about the changes to this district, and he put together this map, showing what was added to the 8th Senate District (green), what was removed in redistricting (orange), and what stayed (blue).
So, would Knodl have won this race under old maps?
Obviously, it’s impossible to say. He won the seat under new maps, and that’s all that ultimately matters. There’s no questioning the validity of the results here. These were the maps that were in place. A win is a win is a win. But there is evidence to suggest that it would have been an even closer race under previous maps, and it’s entirely possible – and perhaps even likely – that Habush Sinykin would have won.
We talk so often about how gerrymandering has warped politics in Wisconsin and has created these unfair and often unseen advantages for the Republicans who drew the maps. And this is a district that is very clearly gerrymandered. It makes absolutely no sense for Bayshore mall in Glendale to be in a different district from Whitefish Bay, while Whitefish Bay and Holy Hill are part of the same district. It’s asinine.
And now those maps are part of the reason that Dan Knodl is moving on up from the Assembly to the Senate, and why in the 50-50 state that is Wisconsin, we are about to have a two-thirds Republican supermajority in the State Senate.
This victory for Knodl could be short-lived, though. Because this was a special election, we know this seat is going to be up again in 2024. And we know redistricting challenges are going to be coming to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, so the districts could look different. But even if they stay the same, with the way the 8th Senate District is trending, this is going to be a winnable seat for Democrats in less than two years.
For now, though, this is yet another example of how the extreme partisan gerrymander that Republicans have drawn themselves can give them advantages in so many key districts, inflating their presence in state government beyond what they’ve really earned.
Change to this broken system can’t come soon enough.
UPGRADE TO PAID THIS FRIDAY: We are offering our biggest subscription sale of the year on Milwaukee Day, April 14.
Subscriptions will be 41.4% off on 4/14 to celebrate the 414! A full-year subscription that’s a $50 value will be available for less than $30. You could even get started with a month-by-month subscription for less than $3.
If you’ve ever thought about upgrading your subscription, Friday will be a perfect time to do just that. See you back here on Milwaukee Day.
ICYMI: The Recombobulation Area on the airwaves:
I also joined Jason Calvi of Fox 6 in Milwaukee to talk about Tammy Baldwin’s run for re-election and which Republican she might face in 2024. One name to keep an eye on there as someone who might run? Congressman Tom Tiffany.
See the clip below and read the full story here.
Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Heartland Signal, Belt Magazine, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s won 17 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
Already subscribe? Get a gift subscription for a friend!
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.