What Does Wisconsin Special Election Mean for Democrats, Republicans?

Printer-friendly versionSend to friend

The political world, especially its left side, is still abuzz over Tuesday's special state Supreme Court election in Wisconsin.

The race was nonpartisan, at least technically. On Thursday, the official count of the election swung back to give the lead to incumbent David Prosser, who was supported by the GOP, over Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg, running with the support of Democrats, by only a few thousand votes. The race had been even closer until a set of ballots from Waukesha turned up unexpectedly on Thursday night.

The race was framed, inside and outside the state, as a referendum on Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who has sought to limit the power of public-sector unions, a traditional Democratic constituency and the closeness of the tally is seen as a slap against him. Incumbent Supreme Court judges in Wisconsin usually walk to victory in races with low-turnouts -- neither was true this time.

But how much can you read into those numbers really? That's a good question.

Looking at the results through our 12 Patchwork Nation types shows some impressive gains for Democrats across the state, but it also yields some question marks.

What it Means for Democrats?

Overall, eight of our 12 county types are present in Wisconsin. And in six of those types, the percentages for Kloppenburg beat those of Tom Barrett, the Democratic candidate for governor in November -- that is the ostensible "Democratic" vote was higher in most county types and in an overwhelming number of counties -- 60 out of 72.

Kloppenburg and the Democrats saw good-sized gains, 5 percent or more, in the aging Emptying Nests, the small-town Service Worker Centers and Boom Towns that grew in the first half of the last decade. The "Democratic" percentage was also about 5 percent higher in Dane County, the state's one collegiate Campus and Career county -- home to Madison, the state capital and the main University of Wisconsin campus.

The Democratic vote was essentially flat in the state's wealthier Monied Burb counties -- many located around Milwaukee, including Waukesha -- with a less than 1 percent gain overall.


In Dane, in particular, the results are not a huge shock. The county has been home to the many protests against Walker and his agenda. But, the increases in the more far-flung areas, like the Service Worker Centers, are a bit of a surprise. Note all the blue at the top of the map above. And the Boom Towns increase is something of a surprise.

Both the Boom Towns and the Service Worker Centers voted for Walker in November. They tend to lean to the right generally. And they edged barely toward Kloppenburg and the "Democrats" on Tuesday. It may be that those places, hit hard by the recession, didn't like seeing public-sector workers, like teachers, taking a further economic hit. And when you get to those thinly populated Service Worker counties there are many public sector employees -- be it at the county, city or state level.

So, a good day for the Democrats? Yes.

But, consider Milwaukee County. Much has been made of how Kloppenburg carried the county that Walker once represented by a decisive margin. That's true. But it was actually by less than the Democrats won it by in November. In other words, the "Republicans" did better in Milwaukee on Tuesday with Prosser than they did last November.

And the Monied Burb counties, where the Kloppenburg did slightly better on Tuesday, still tilted heavily toward to the GOP overall. Even with her slight improvement, the "Democrats" still only garnered about 36 percent of the vote.

Major Provisos

So is a sleeping liberal giant awakened in Wisconsin? There are some points to consider -- and events to remember.

Following the 2008 election, the Democratic Party was thought to be ascendant. After the 2010 midterms, the electorate had turned and the Republicans were back. Those were at least, the storylines. The first was proven to be wrong. The second is, at the very least, questionable considering the squabbling among the GOP in Washington.

There is a danger in reading too much into any set of election results, as we have noted often in our reporting on Patchwork Nation. And that is doubly true of a special election at an odd time in one state.

That said, Tuesday's race is linked to Walker in terms of the campaign and in terms of the possible endpoint for his proposals with collective bargaining. Those proposals, now law in Wisconsin, may well end up before the state Supreme Court. In other words, it is probably unwise to completely ignore Tuesday's results from Wisconsin.

Last fall there was a lot of talk about an enthusiasm gap between Democrats and Republicans with the latter having a big edge. If there is a reading out of the numbers from Wisconsin Tuesday, it may be that the gap has closed.