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Post-Election Recombobulation: Wisconsin Deals the Deciding Blow To Defeat Donald Trump
Plus: 10 takeaways from the election.
The Recombobulation Area is a weekly opinion column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
Defeating an incumbent president is no small thing. It hasn’t happened in this country in nearly 30 years. Voting out a fascist is no small thing. That’s even more of a rarity. This victory that more than 75 million voters across the country delivered for Joe Biden is — to use the words of the President-elect from another victorious moment — a big f**king deal.
And after everything that’s happened these last four years, it was Wisconsin that dealt the decisive blow to defeat Donald Trump.
With the role Wisconsin played in sending Trump to the White House, it sure feels like some demons were exorcised on the afternoon of Nov. 4 when the race in Wisconsin was called for Joe Biden.
But before that, 2020’s Election Night felt as if it was unfolding much the same as 2016’s, offering flashback after Floridian flashback and a nail-biter margin in Wisconsin, but with the added variable of the inevitable absentee ballot count that would change the equation in many states. Being one of those states, and with Milwaukee County’s results long-expected to arrive in the post-bar time hours, we waited.
It was then in the dead of night that the turning point arrived. Milwaukee County came through. It delivered 317,251 votes (69.13%) for Joe Biden, an improvement upon Hillary Clinton’s margin and total in 2016, and the biggest margin of victory in the County since FDR in 1936.
Everything then began to change, just as dawn was breaking. Biden’s victory in Wisconsin began to come into focus, just as it soon would in Michigan, and after winning those two key states, his path to the presidency became clear.
We know that the moment many of us spent watching the results arrive via police escort in the middle of the night was not the real turning point. The real turning point happened when the votes were cast; this was just the way in which those votes had to be counted and reported. But being from Milwaukee, seeing those votes — our votes — come through the way they did was incredibly powerful. Four years of emotions of living in a country with this despicable man in charge rushed to the surface, and I was overcome with a hope for America that I had not felt in a long time. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.
So, as we break down and reflect upon and analyze the results of the 2020 election in Wisconsin, let’s not forget the most important result: Joe Biden won. Donald Trump lost.
A broad coalition formed under the big tent of the Democratic Party in this election to cast the votes that proved decisive to prevent a second Trump term and the slippery slope to who-knows-what that could’ve come with it. This was an important moment in American history, and your votes in Wisconsin made an enormous difference.
With Joe Biden as president, we can continue to perfect our union. With a second term with Donald Trump, we might not have had that chance. Those votes from Wisconsin -- our votes -- pulled the nation back from the brink of abject disaster and put us on course to rebuild for a brighter future. Let’s not for one second forget that we did that.
So, how did it happen? How did Joe Biden emerge victorious in this election that was once again decided by less than 1% of votes? And what happened with the extremely important elections in the Wisconsin State Legislature? What made the difference? What trends emerged?
1. Democrats protected Gov. Evers’ veto
While Wisconsin Democrats might not have scored the big wins in the State Legislature that many thought could be possible and the slim margin of presidential victory may not have delivered the righteous condemnation of Trumpism that many were hoping for, they did the most important thing: They defeated Donald Trump.
They also did the next-most important thing: Protected against a GOP supermajority in the Wisconsin State Legislature, preserving Gov. Evers’ veto powers heading into 2021’s sure-to-be contentious redistricting fight. Without that veto, Republicans would be able to again draw whichever maps they’d like.
Republicans gaining a supermajority was a real possibility, particularly in the State Senate, where there were (seven) open seats. Two of those open seats, previously held by Democrats, were in swing regions of the state -- the 32nd District in the La Crosse area, the 30th District in the Green Bay/Marinette area.
The race in the 30th turned out not to be close. Republicans did extraordinarily well in many of the races thought to be competitive in northern parts of the state. Eric Wimberger defeated Jonathon Hansen by a nearly 10-point margin in a race thought to slightly favor the Democrat.
But by a slim 589-vote margin, Democrat Brad Pfaff emerged victorious in the 32nd. This proved to be the difference in the fight to save the governor’s veto.
Evers and his veto are the final firewall remaining against Republicans’ efforts to ensure another decade of an uneven playing field. The effort to preserve that veto has ramifications that will last for a decade and cannot be discounted.
2. Joe Biden cracked the Red Wall in the WOW counties
There are a variety of reasons to point to as to why Joe Biden won this election. He drove up huge margins of victory in Dane County. He maintained big margins in the city of Milwaukee. He won over a small but not insignificant number of Fox Valley and northeastern Wisconsin voters, and made gains in counties like La Crosse and Eau Claire.
But what does truly stand out is Biden’s relative strength in the Milwaukee suburbs.
He got it together in Waukesha.
He turned the tide in Ozaukee.
And he proved to be dominant in Milwaukee County suburbs.
The WOW counties have long been the Republicans’ most reliable base, with margins that often counter the large Democratic margins in Milwaukee, but that appears to have changed. Trump and Republicans up and down the ballot solidified and often gained support in more rural areas, particularly in northern, central and western Wisconsin. After Trump, that’s their new base.
That strength of Republican support in these three suburban counties have played a big part in making the Milwaukee metro one of the most politically polarized regions in the country. That is changing.
Biden improved upon Clinton’s 2016 margin in Waukesha County by 5.5%, and in Ozaukee County by nearly 7%. Trump still won those counties — +21 in Waukesha, +12 in Ozaukee — but cities like Mequon, Elm Grove, Port Washington, Waukesha and Brookfield came within single-digit margins between Biden and Trump — and Biden won outright in Cedarburg. Milwaukee County suburbs that were once evenly split or had a slight Republican advantage have almost all gone blue since 2012, sometimes in huge margins, and Greendale and Greenfield flipped for the Democrat from 2016 to 2020.
The exception here, is Washington County, which did not see the same level of movement — only about a 2% shift. Washington might eventually prove to have more in common politically with its other neighboring counties (Dodge, Fond du Lac, Sheboygan) than it does with Waukesha and Ozaukee.
But make no mistake: The shift that we’ve seen in suburbs around the country has arrived in the Milwaukee area. Biden cracked the red WOW wall. Not only is that a major achievement for the Democrats in Wisconsin, it brings hope for a less-polarized region, which could have a profound impact in a myriad of ways.
3. Wauwatosa, at the heart of it all
Perhaps no community is more emblematic of the political transformation happening in the region than Wauwatosa, the inner-ring Milwaukee County suburb just west of the city with a population just under 50,000.
No Milwaukee County suburb shifted more toward Biden than Wauwatosa — a 12-point swing from the last election. From 2016 to 2020, the city increased its vote total in the presidential election by about 4,500 — nearly all of which went for Joe Biden. Nearly a quarter of the statewide margin of just over 20,000 votes came from Wauwatosa alone. Its impact on this election was huge.
The city was one of the few that Biden visited in Wisconsin. It was clear that his campaign had targeted Wauwatosa.
‘Tosa not only swung hard for Biden, but it is now responsible for electing two Democratic representatives to the State Assembly.
Sara Rodriguez was one of two Democratic challengers to flip Assembly seats in this election. Her victory was powered by winning more than 60% of the Wauwatosa vote, a 12-point margin in the city. Her win overall, in a district that includes a significant chunk of Waukesha County, was by less than a two-point margin.
Perhaps the single biggest story from the State Assembly elections was the resounding victory of incumbent Democratic representative Robyn Vining.
Vining won in 2018 by less than 0.5%. In a seat once held by Scott Walker, just 138 votes separated her and her Republican opponent Matt Adamczyk. It was the first time a Democrat flipped a seat during Robin Vos’ time as Assembly Speaker, which followed a redistricting effort many now consider to be the worst example of gerrymandering in the nation.
Vos targeted Vining for the entirety of her first term in office, and identified flipping her seat as a top priority going into the election. Conservatives on talk radio and Twitter went after her relentlessly. The political fund run by Michelle Litjens Vos, the current wife of the Assembly Speaker, went after her, and attack ads directly from the state Republican Party got ugly.
None of it worked. Not only was Vining once again victorious, she increased her vote total by nearly 5,000 and won by a convincing 8-point margin over Republican Bonnie Lee. And in Wauwatosa, Vining won more than 65% of the vote.
This is a city that Mitt Romney nearly won outright in 2012, and now even down-ballot Democrats are pulling nearly two-thirds of the vote there. It’s a testament to both the strength of Vining’s campaign and to the larger shift unfolding in the city.
What also must be mentioned when analyzing the results in Wauwatosa is what has happened all over town for months there this year. Black Lives Matter marches and protests were a common occurrence throughout the city for much of the summer and into the fall following the police shooting of 17-year-old Alvin Cole by Wauwatosa Police Officer Joseph Mensah. Cole was the third person of color who Mensah killed while on duty in five years. After Mensah, who is Black, was not charged by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm in early October, protests and unrest gripped the city for much of the week that followed. Moments from the protests turned ugly at times, but the over-the-top response from Wauwatosa Police was also criticized, especially after the arrest of the Cole family, and even by the editor of the conservative Daily Caller, Neil Patel, who said, “There’s a lot of talk about good cops and bad cops these days. There is a definite problem in the Wauwatosa Police Department.”
And though cynical Republicans saw the protests as a way to attack Democratic candidates and disparage the voices of those marching in the largest protest movement in American history by scapegoating a select few, voters in Wauwatosa rejected those attacks and instead chose candidates like Vining and Biden who made messages of unity central to their campaigns.
“The fear message doesn’t resonate with suburban families,” Vining told the Washington Post in September. “These suburbs are moving. They don’t like the national message that we are divided, that people are completely against each other. They want to vote for a good person, from the state level to voting for president.”
Turns out, she was right.
4. Major change does not come to the Wisconsin State Legislature
Despite meeting a simultaneous pandemic-recession-historic protest movement with months of inaction, gaining it the unenviable title of the least active full-time legislature in the nation this year, the Republican-controlled Wisconsin State Legislature saw little change once all the votes were counted.
In addition to the seat Rodriguez flipped in the western suburbs, Democrat Deb Andraca unseated incumbent Republican Jim Ott in the north shore suburbs. Picking up those two seats were important wins for the Democrats. But at the same time, they left some real opportunities on the table.
Some of the closest defeats for the Dems came in the 24th District (Milwaukee suburbs), where challenger Emily Siegrist closed the gap but did not pull ahead in a repeat of the 2018 race against Republican Dan Knodl, in the 51st District (southwestern Wisconsin), where incumbent Todd Novak fended off another close challenge by defeating Kriss Marion, and in the 88th District (Green Bay area), where Kristin Lyerly, an Ob/Gyn working in one of the most covid-ravaged parts of the country, came close but could not unseat incumbent Republican John Macco. These were each in swing districts in different parts of the state and each time, the Republican incumbent emerged victorious.
Democrats even almost let a seat slip away, as one of the closest races came in the 73rd District, where incumbent Democrat Nick Milroy narrowly won by just 139 votes over Republican Keith Kern.
And while gerrymandering always plays a part on the tilted playing field that is the State Legislature, there seems to be more to the results here than unfair districts.
It wasn’t just Donald Trump who solidified and expanded upon his support in western, central and northern Wisconsin. The Republican Party did so up and down the ballot in big numbers, too. In two key State Senate races — the 10th District in northwestern Wisconsin and the 24th District in central Wisconsin — Republicans won by bigger-than-expected margins. Incumbent Patrick Testin won by a 13-point margin, and Rob Stafsholt flipped the seat in the 10th with a resounding 20-point victory.
Perhaps this had something to do with the pandemic changing the way candidates could connect with voters on the campaign trail, perhaps there were aspects of the Democrats’ message that were just plain wrong -- you could chalk the shortcomings up to any number of factors in this unprecedented year. But one thing that can’t be discounted is the independent streak you see in many parts of Wisconsin. There are significant numbers of voters in this state that just want the government to leave them be. That’s a factor that Democrats should be talking about more substantively as they regroup for the next run.
The suburbs will continue to be an area where Democrats can make gains. Biden ran ahead of the Assembly candidates in Senate and Assembly races, and the region’s political calculus has clearly shifted.
There were 115 seats on the ballot in the 2020 state legislative elections. Democrats will gain two Assembly seats and Republicans will gain two Senate seats. In a year where life was upended and the state felt ripe for change, much remained the same.
5. The Assembly Democrats’ 2021 Freshmen Class is a groundbreaking group
This is a tremendously diverse group. Francesca Hong will be the first Asian-American to serve in the State Legislature, and Samba Baldeh the first Muslim. Rodriguez, Andraca, Dora Drake and Kristina Shelton will each replace men in their respective districts. Of the ten new Assembly Democrats, none are white men.
The big picture of the balance of power in the state may not have shifted, but these are important firsts and important changes in Wisconsin. Representation matters, and with this group, Wisconsin will see better representation.
6. The Dane County Democratic Powerhouse
This one is pretty simple. This election proved that Dane County is the biggest Democratic stronghold in Wisconsin.
Joe Biden’s margin of victory in Dane was more than 181,000 votes — about even to the roughly 182,000-vote margin in much more populous Milwaukee County, and up by about 35,000 votes from Clinton’s margin in 2016. The Biden-Harris ticket was able to fuel this Democratic powerhouse, winning more than 75% of votes in the county.
Dane County is by far the fastest-growing region in Wisconsin, and it’s one that’s becoming more and more Democratic with every election. It will continue to be an electoral force to be reckoned with in statewide races.
7. What happened in The Crucial Fox Valley?
In the Fox Valley and northeastern Wisconsin, a region we focused on quite a bit here at The Recombobulation Area, Biden’s gains were modest at best, in the 2-4% range.
In a race that was decided by less than 1%, any shift matters matters, of course. But with the region’s coronavirus outbreak becoming one of the worst in the world right as votes were being cast, it seemed like there might be more swing to this part of the state where swings are not uncommon.
But in the end, the only county Biden swung in the region was Door.
In 2018, Democrat Tammy Baldwin won all four of Brown, Door, Outagamie and Winnebago counties in 2018 in her victory in the Senate. But so did Republican Scott Walker in his loss for governor.
In 2016, both Donald Trump and Ron Johnson won all four of those counties, as did Scott Walker in 2014. In 2012, Barack Obama won Door and Winnebago counties, and Mitt Romney won in Brown and Outagamie counties. The Tammy Baldwin-Tommy Thompson Senate race saw the same split. You have to go back to 2008 now for the last time a Democratic presidential candidate won a majority of votes in Brown or Outagamie counties, when Barack Obama won in a landslide.
Tammy Baldwin has provided a path for Democrats to be more competitive in this part of the state. Whatever it is that she’s doing that’s proving successful there, other statewide candidates will need to learn from in 2022, when races for Governor and Senator will both be on the ballot.
8. Why Milwaukee’s voter turnout is more complicated than it appears
Much has already been made of turnout in the city of Milwaukee in this election. The overall number of voters was essentially flat from 2016 to 2020, but that obscures the bigger picture.
Milwaukee is the most diverse city in the state, and you cannot discuss the city’s turnout without recognizing the fact that suppressing votes in communities of color was precisely the goal of the state Republicans who were crafting the rules. From implementing voter ID to shortening the early vote period to threatening early vote at Fiserv Forum and Miller Park, the obstacles being put in place were intentional and were clearly targeted at Black, Hispanic and other marginalized voters in the city. Combine those intentional obstacles with the ongoing threat of the pandemic that has had a disproportionate impact on people of color, and Milwaukee was always fighting an uphill battle on turnout.
We also know that discouraging people from voting was an actual Trump campaign strategy in 2016. The “deterrence” project clearly targeted voters in majority-Black neighborhoods in Milwaukee. We saw many examples of the Trump campaign’s "deterrence" strategy returning in 2020.
Perhaps that strategy also showed up to target Hispanic voters this year. Misinformation campaigns targeted WhatsApp, which is especially popular with Latinx immigrants, as well as Spanish-language radio stations, often pitting Hispanic voters against the Black Lives Matter movement.
Turnout declined from 2016 in majority-Hispanic neighborhoods in the city of Milwaukee, but that’s not the whole picture, either. A partisan shift certainly occurred, too. Many voters moved from Clinton to Trump.
The story flew under the radar, but this Reuters piece was an overlooked warning sign about Hispanic voters in Milwaukee. The Trump campaign set up a campaign office on the city’s near-south side; the Biden campaign didn’t. And the support for Trump from many of the voters interviewed for this piece was especially enthusiastic, while support for Biden was tepid at best.
Biden clearly courted suburban communities, and obviously had success there, but declining or unchanged support with the city’s communities of color was a real missed opportunity.
There were warning signs along the way, too. In results from several Marquette University Law School Polls, a need for Biden to solidify support with Black and Hispanic voters stood out, and it was a point I made repeatedly here in breakdowns.
Another major factor impacting citywide turnout: College students. Some of the biggest drops in turnout happened around UW-Milwaukee and Marquette University, with fewer on-campus residents due to the pandemic an obvious reason why.
Just as the region is evolving and changing and adjusting to life during a pandemic, the city itself is, too. There is no one definitive conclusion to be drawn from election results in Milwaukee. As always, Milwaukee contains multitudes.
9. Joe Biden gained the most votes for president in Wisconsin since Barack Obama in 2008
Overall turnout increased for both parties in 2020, leading to the state’s highest turnout since 2004.
Trump received more than 200,000 more votes in a losing effort this year than in his victory in 2016, which turns out to be the most votes any Republican has ever won in Wisconsin.
But Biden added nearly 250,000 votes to Clinton’s 2016 total, and won the most votes since Barack Obama in 2008.
Here’s a ranking of who has won the most votes for president in Wisconsin since 2000.
Obama 2008: 1,677,211
Biden 2020*: 1,630,389
Obama 2012: 1,620,985
Trump 2020*: 1,609,879
Kerry 2004: 1,489,504
Bush 2004: 1,478,120
Romney 2012: 1,407,966
Trump 2016: 1,405,284
Clinton 2016: 1,382,536
McCain 2008: 1,262,393
Gore 2000: 1,242,987
Bush 2000: 1,237,279
*Unofficial results, but unlikely to change in overall ranking
10. It is completely ridiculous that Wisconsin Republicans are not accepting the election results
Joe Biden won in Wisconsin. Joe Biden won the election. Joe Biden is the President-elect. These are all facts.
It’s not just Donald Trump who is refusing to accept these facts. Wisconsin Republicans are also refusing to accept the results of the election.
Sen. Ron Johnson refused to congratulate the President-elect, saying there’s “nothing to congratulate him about.”
None of Wisconsin’s five Republican members of Congress have congratulated the President-elect or acknowledges his victory.
And at the state level, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Rep. Ron Tusler, the chair of the Committee on Campaigns and Elections, launched a baseless voter investigation, specifically attacking Milwaukee.
There have been no credible reports of fraud in this election. The entire central count in Milwaukee was even live-streamed for full transparency. The Wisconsin Elections Commission is debunking baseless claim after baseless claim. This is just the latest effort from Vos to demonize Milwaukee’s largest, most diverse city. After Republicans lost the governor’s office in 2018, Vos said, “if you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority.” People who wonder why Milwaukee gets a bad reputation should do more to step up to defend the city when real attacks like this occur.
And just as it’s not just Trump, it’s also not just Vos. It’s the whole party. Assembly representative Joe Sanfileppo of New Berlin doubled down and then some to suggest that the election could be declared “null and void” or that the Republican-led Legislature should force electors to vote for Donald Trump, who lost the election.
Robin Vos, Ron Tusler and Joe Sanfileppo are just baselessly saying that your votes don’t count. That Milwaukee’s votes don’t count. It’s despicable, and everyone who believes in democracy in our state should be speaking out against it.
Because once again, democracy worked in America. The people had their say, and Donald Trump will soon no longer be the president of the United States. Wisconsin’s role in making that happen will forever be tied to this moment in history. You made that happen. We made that happen.
Correction: A previous version of this piece said Mitt Romney won outright in the city of Wauwatosa in the 2012 presidential election. He lost to Barack Obama by less than 2%.
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 on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.