As posted in WisOpinion.com
In 2012 Democrat Tammy Baldwin used a tried and true formula to win the U.S. Senate race over Republican Tommy Thompson: win more votes in her southern Wisconsin base of Dane and Milwaukee County than her GOP opponent did in the Milwaukee suburbs, and then battle to a dead-heat up North. Baldwin received 54.8% of the two-party vote in the Madison and Milwaukee markets combined and eked out a bare majority of 50.1% in the state’s 5 northern Markets, three of which (Green Bay/Wausau-Rhinelander/LaCrosse-Eau Claire) are contained within our borders and thus heavily fought over.
The North has been what I term the “swinging gate” of Badger State politics for nearly every election beginning with Barack Obama’s extraordinary victory in 2008, when he carried virtually every county throughout the North, and continuing through Scott Walker’s three victories and the Democratic victories in 2012. The margins between each of these elections have fluctuated much more in the North than in the more reliable South, bound tightly by the polar opposite political regions of Milwaukee/Madison and the so-called WOW counties in-between.
Little surprise then that incumbent Supreme Court Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, who produced an Obama-like margin (16 pts) in a much lower turnout election this past Tuesday, would perform extremely well throughout her native Northern Wisconsin. Bradley actually did worse than Baldwin in Milwaukee County and thus the state’s largest media market—losing it to Judge James Daley with only 48.3% of the vote compared to Baldwin’s 50.7. Her performance was much better in Dane County (an extraordinary 78%) but saw her overall Madison media market performance somewhat reduced by Daley’s close defeat in his native Rock County.
As a result, Bradley won the two big southern markets with 56.4%, slightly better than Baldwin’s 54.8% in 2012 and normally enough to secure a narrow statewide victory. But Bradley instead won by a near-landslide proportion, and the reason was an across-the-board wipeout up North.
Bradley won the usual conservative bailiwick of the Green Bay media market with nearly 60% of the vote, a stunning net 23 point improvement over Baldwin’s narrow defeat to Thompson;
Bradley won the northwestern La Crosse/Eau Claire market with an even more astounding 65% of the vote, also a 23 point gain over Baldwin’s more narrow 2012 win;
And Bradley won in the Wausau/Rhinelander market with 59%, a 17 point net pickup over Baldwin, and even bested the Democratic Senator by 18 net points in the Twin Cities market, where neither campaign spent any media dollars, with 57% of the vote;
Overall Ann Walsh Bradley won an amazing 60% of the vote throughout the North, compared to Tammy Baldwin’s narrowest of margins (50.1%). Now while it is certainly true that a) Daley received no 3rd party help from either the GOP stalwarts Wisconsin Manufacturers or the Club for Growth, b) this was a low turnout election, as odd year Wisconsin contests tend to be, attracting fewer than 20% of adults to the polls, and c) a technically non-partisan race, though the candidates belied that by accusing each other of being overly dependent on partisan support and activists, the stark fact remains: The North swung again, only this time toward the progressive side of the fence and away from Scott Walker and the Republican Party. Did Walker’s nascent Presidential campaign, craven move to the right on issues as varied as right-to-work, abortion and immigration, and particularly his proposed budget cuts to the UW system, play a role in heightening Bradley’s victory margin, especially up North? Is there a growing backlash in the state toward a Governor now clearly more interested in his own political ambition than the health or people of the state he was just elected to govern for 4 years? Why did Bradley’s margin shoot through the proverbial roof in Dane County if not for Walker’s move to embrace conservative views he distanced himself from in his last campaign or his proposed severe cuts to the University of Wisconsin?
Ann Walsh Bradley was a solid incumbent representing a popular Supreme Court (if the so-called reform referendum had been fairly presented to the voters as an attempt to take away power from respected Chief Shirley Abrahamson, it surely would have lost. Most voters had no idea what its true purpose was, such was the deception of its backers) and competing against a weak opponent. She deserved reelection from the voters of Wisconsin. But the fact that her margins were so impressive throughout the North should be studied by analysts from each party, and the media, looking to understand what might happen in Wisconsin next year with two prominent races about to kick off. The Swinging North continues to hold the key to success.
Paul Maslin is a Democratic pollster based in Madison. He served as pollster and strategic consultant to Justice Ann Walsh Bradley in the 2015 Supreme Court election.