After enduring eight years of Republicans wielding complete control of state government, Chippewa Valley Democrats are finally looking forward to an inauguration day in Wisconsin.
That day in early January will be when Democrat Tony Evers, who defeated GOP two-term Gov. Scott Walker by a narrow margin in Tuesday’s midterm election, will take over as the state’s top elected official and once again give Democrats a voice in state government.
Perhaps the reason that will be most important is that Evers will be in office when political lines are redrawn after the 2020 census, giving him an opportunity to veto legislative districts he believes give one party an unfair advantage, said Lisa Herrmann, chairwoman of the 3rd Congressional District Democratic Party. Partisan redistricting has been a bone of contention for Democrats — even sparking a lawsuit that advanced all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — since the boundaries were redrawn after the 2010 census.
“We have the governor’s office now, and 2020 is coming up,” Herrmann said. “Having a seat at the table is probably the most important thing to come out of this election.”
State Sen.-elect Jeff Smith, D-town of Brunswick, agreed, saying he looks forward to Evers exercising his power to veto any unfairly partisan maps the GOP-controlled Legislature might send him.
Until that happens, Smith said Democratic candidates will continue to face an uphill battle winning legislative seats in districts he said have been gerrymandered to pack as many Democrats as possible into a few districts so Republicans running in other districts will have an electorate tilted in their favor.
“One of the biggest takeaways for me from the election is the obvious fact that gerrymandering works,” said Smith, who defeated Republican Mel Pittman of Plum City to win the 31st Senate District seat being vacated by Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma. “So, despite Democrats winning statewide elections across the board (governor, U.S. senator, attorney general, treasurer and secretary of state), nothing much changed in the Assembly or the state Senate.”
No legislative seats in west-central Wisconsin changed party control, but the region did tilt slightly to the left compared with past midterms.
Evers earned 49.6 percent of the vote statewide to oust Walker, who received 48.4 percent, in a hard-fought race that wasn’t decided until after 1 a.m. Wednesday.
Walker attracted 114,107 votes to 98,518 for Evers in the 12-county west-central region comprising Barron, Buffalo, Chippewa, Clark, Dunn, Eau Claire, Jackson, Pepin, Pierce, Rusk, St. Croix and Trempealeau counties, according to unofficial results. But that 15,589-vote margin was down more than 5,000 from the 21,176-vote edge Walker enjoyed in the area during the 2014 election against Democrat Mary Burke.
The 212,625 votes cast for the two major candidates in the region was up 23,985 from 2014 and reflected record Wisconsin midterm turnout that saw nearly 2.7 million people vote statewide. That equates to turnout of 59 percent of the voting-age population, or slightly below the roughly 60 percent reported in Eau Claire County, the lone area county carried by Evers.
Eau Claire County was once again a blue island in a sea of red, but Evers’ margin of 5,910 votes in the county was more than six times Burke’s 940-vote edge.
“I think Democrats did a particularly good job of turning their people out, especially in college communities,” said John Frank, a retired Chippewa Valley Technical College social studies instructor and former GOP congressional aide.
NextGen America, a liberal group that devoted significant resources to registering and motivating young voters in Eau Claire and other college towns across the state, indicated its volunteers and organizers got voting pledges from 2,302 UW-Eau Claire students this year.
The organization said Evers got 69 percent of the vote in Eau Claire’s Ward 20, which includes all UW-Eau Claire on-campus housing. That was up from Burke’s 54 percent in 2014.
Evers also outperformed Burke by receiving 70 percent of the vote in Ward 5 and 74 percent in Ward 6 — two neighborhoods with a large concentration of off-campus student housing. Turnout increased 67 percent in Ward 5 and 48 percent in Ward 6 from four years ago, according to NextGen.
"Young voters made the difference this year, and they showed up in record-breaking numbers for a vision of the future based on equality, justice and opportunity for all," said Sean Manning, NextGen America's Wisconsin spokesman. "But it's important to understand that this didn't just happen overnight. NextGen America has been working to build youth political power in Wisconsin for almost a year — and we're not going anywhere."
Marijuana, 'Walker fatigue'
Third Congressional District Republican Party chairman Brian Westrate suggested Democrats were helped in statewide elections by advisory referendums about marijuana legalization in counties such as Eau Claire with large populations of young voters likely to have a more open-minded view of the drug.
“Basically they engineered essentially meaningless referendums in strongholds to drive up turnout,” Westrate said. “They used it as a wedge issue.”
However, Westrate also acknowledged the outcome in the governor’s race likely was driven in part by “Walker fatigue,” considering it was Walker’s fourth gubernatorial campaign in eight years after in 2012 he became the nation’s first governor to survive a recall election.
Westrate said the election was just the next step in the normal political cycle in Wisconsin, where voters routinely switch allegiances between Democrats and Republicans.
“This is not a red state. This is a purple state that has periods of blue and periods of red,” he said. “That’s just Wisconsin.”
Geoff Peterson, chairman of the political science department at UW-Eau Claire, agreed that Wisconsin has a long history of going back and forth between Democratic and Republican governors.
“It seems like voters just thought it was time for a change,” Peterson said.
Though the much-predicted “blue tsunami” turned into more of a “soft wave” that helped Democrats win the statewide seats, it wasn’t large enough to overcome what he called the GOP’s “creative redistricting” in legislative races, Peterson said.
UW-Stout political science lecturer Rich Postlewaite, who ran unsuccessfully this year in the 91st Assembly District Democratic primary, speculated that the strong Republican showing in legislative races was the result of both gerrymandering and tribalism, which he described as voters moving to areas where like-minded people live.
Herrmann and Smith maintained the result shows voter discontent with Walker’s divisive style of leadership.
“People are tired of politics as usual, and Tony Evers is definitely not politics as usual,” Smith said.
Herrmann added, “I think people are mad and are ready to have some kind of bipartisan government again running the state.”
U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., won four more west-central Wisconsin counties than Evers in racking up a 10.9 percentage point margin statewide in her re-election victory over Republican challenger Leah Vukmir.
Baldwin added victories in Dunn, Jackson, Pierce and Trempealeau counties and attracted a greater share of votes than Evers in every regional county, a result that Peterson attributed mostly to Vukmir’s lack of name recognition in western Wisconsin. Baldwin carried the 12 counties by 8,165 votes.
UW-Eau Claire geography associate professor Ryan Weichelt, an expert on political geography, said he assumes Baldwin connected with rural voters on the issues of health care and protecting coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, whereas Evers may have been seen more as an outsider from Madison who didn't visit the region as often as Walker.
Frank said the strong area showings by the liberal Baldwin and the conservative Walker underscore the independence of Wisconsin voters.
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