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Live Blog: Milwaukee Mayoral Primary Election Results
Polls close at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 15. We'll be updating and reacting to the results here.
The Recombobulation Area is a weekly opinion column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
Milwaukee’s first open mayoral primary in nearly two decades is happening today. The top two vote-getters will move on to the April 5 general election.
There are seven candidates running for the office — Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic, former alderman Bob Donovan, community activist Ieshuh Griffin, Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson, Sheriff Earnell Lucas, business owner Michael Sampson, and State Senator Lena Taylor.
This is a groundbreaking field of candidates, where five of the seven could make history as either the first woman to be mayor of the city (Dimitrijevic), the first Black mayor elected to the office (Johnson, Lucas) or both (Taylor, Griffin).
We’ll be offering updates, news, reaction and more to this live blog as the results unfold later tonight. Polls close at 8 p.m.
For any news tips and information, email us at email@example.com.
8:00 p.m.: Polls are officially closed! Here we go…
8:20 p.m.: The Journal Sentinel has the first batch of results. According to Daniel Bice, it’s 65% of today’s in-person voting.
8:25 p.m.: As we mentioned in last week’s column, the three candidates we’re keeping an eye on tonight are State Sen. Taylor, Ald. Dimitrijevic, and Sheriff Lucas. The key would be if any of the three would finish ahead of former alderman Bob Donovan.
The next batch of updates are in, we’re seeing from CBS 58.
8:35 p.m.: These numbers do not include any absentee ballots, and as we’ve seen in past pandemic elections, right-leaning voters have not voted absentee or early voted as frequently as left-leaning voters. But in these early totals, Donovan has more than double the votes of the next closest candidate. That doesn’t bode well for any of the three candidates we’ve been keeping an eye on.
8:40: It’s safe to say at this point that Cavalier Johnson is going to be one of the two candidates headed to the Apr. 5 general election. The acting mayor has a substantial lead on every other candidate.
8:48: There have been some rumblings that turnout would be quite low for this race, and that appears to be bearing out. With 95% reporting (per CBS 58), there are less than 40,000 votes cast in this race. The two-month campaign in the dead of winter does not appear to have boosted turnout. Shocking, I know.
9:05: It appears that we’re hurtling toward the inevitable binary of this race. Johnson was in incredibly good position to advance, and Donovan was the most likely candidate to come in second.
9:10: The local media is calling it:
9:12: Bob Donovan went live on Facebook at his watch party at McKiernan’s Irish Pub. Watch that video here.
9:16: Cavalier Johnson went live at his election night party at Potawatomi Hotel. Watch his speech here.
9:28: Earnell Lucas has called to congratulate his opponents. In the early days of this race, he was thought to be a likely primary winner, set to be in the final two. It didn’t happen for him.
It’s going to be interesting to see what he does next. Dr. Denita Ball, who Lucas made the second in command at the Sheriff’s Office in 2018, announced her candidacy for the office last November. Will Lucas end up being just a one-term sheriff?
9:45: With absentee ballots still yet to be added to the vote total, the race isn’t officially over. A source with the Dimitrijevic campaign tells The Recombobulation Area that they would need to beat Donovan by about a 20% margin in the absentee count to close the gap.
9:55: The officially official results from the Milwaukee County Clerk’s office have updated. Again, these do not yet include counts from absentee ballots.
9:57: Fascinating look at where the votes are coming from in the Milwaukee mayoral primary, from John D. Johnson of Marquette University Law School.
10:12: Here’s another fascinating map.
One takeaway from this is just how well Cavalier Johnson did on the city’s north side. Lena Taylor did well in those neighborhoods in the 2020 race, and has represented much of the north and northwest side for nearly two decades in the State Senate, but her message did not appear to break through in this short campaign.
She had been running for lieutenant governor up until Dec. 24, when she suspended her campaign. Days later, she officially switched gears to make another run for mayor. She was the last to join the race, and now, that mayoral campaign has proved to have lasted just 50 days.
10:30: Well, this is bringing back some good memories…
10:40: Thought bubble: Did Lena Taylor joining the race ultimately doom Lucas’ campaign? Perhaps splitting the vote on the city’s north side among three Black candidates was one too many to provide a path to the final two. (Update: After seeing the final results, the answer to this thought bubble question was a Betteridge’s Law situation.)
10:52: Official results are in: It’s going to be Cavalier Johnson vs. Bob Donovan.
10:55: Cavalier Johnson finishing with more than 40% of the vote in a seven-candidate primary is a big deal. In the end, he finished with nearly double the votes of the second-place finisher, Donovan.
Maybe Johnson finishing with double the votes of Donovan is a data-point we should get used to. Tom Barrett finished with double the votes of the former south side alderman when he ran in 2016, a 70% to 30% blowout.
11:05: With no other conservative candidate on the ballot, Bob Donovan was able to consolidate all of the GOP support — he’s endorsed by just about every high-profile Republican in the state — and capitalize on strong name recognition that comes with being an alderman in the city for 20 years, and running a long campaign for mayor in 2016. Take a look at these numbers:
Percent of the city of Milwaukee vote:
Donald Trump, 2020 general election: 19.6%
Bob Donovan, 2022 primary: 22.3%
11:25: A City Hall source tells The Recombobulation Area that if Johnson wins the April 5 election, Alderwoman Milele Coggs and Alderman José Pérez will be vying for the role of Common Council President.
In 2020, Cavalier Johnson narrowly defeated Coggs on an 8-7 vote to become Council President. Alderman Michael Murphy is currently serving as interim president.
12:00 a.m.: I’m always drawn to debates that don’t cut along traditional Republican-Democratic political lines. It’s why I was so fascinated covering the Bucks arena debate years back, and part of why I found the discussion of the proposed I-94 expansion so interesting this past year.
So that’s why falling into the same tired, old divide is why the Johnson-Donovan result is so frustrating. We could have a real debate on the issues facing the city, but instead, the race is going to get stuck walking in the same well-worn partisan tracks, leading to an inevitable result.
As we wrote last week, “…if Donovan and Johnson are the two candidates to emerge from the primary, Cavalier Johnson might as well go ahead and remove “acting” from his job title. The race would be over. Johnson would win.”
We’ll leave tonight’s live blog tonight with this.
Bob Donovan 2016 mayoral election results:
Six years ago, Bob Donovan was a remarkably poor general election candidate. Having your percentage of the vote go down from the primary to the general is a real feat. And now, in 2022, a significant portion of his base has moved out of the city, following the removal of the residency requirement for police officers and firefighters. For so, so, so many reasons — and we’ll have time to get into them over the next few weeks — he remains an extremely poor general election candidate in the city of Milwaukee.
It’s not just about Donovan, either. This was an especially strong showing for Cavalier Johnson in the primary, finishing with more than 40% of the vote in a big field. He is remarkably well-positioned to win this election. He was the favorite and the frontrunner, and he still over-performed expectations.
In all likelihood, the city of Milwaukee is less than two months away from making history by electing its first Black mayor in Cavalier Johnson.
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 Daily Beast, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s won ten Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.