The following excerpts are copyright @ 2019 The Almanac of American Politics. This feature was provided by and is included in The Almanac of American Politics 2020 edition, released August 2019. To learn more about this publication or purchase a copy, visit www.almanacofamericanpolitics.com.
Heading into the 2016 presidential election, some considered Wisconsin one of the Democrats’ “blue wall” states – a supposed bulwark against Republicans in the Electoral College. But they ignored that the state had turned to the right after the 2010 gubernatorial election of Scott Walker, who proceeded to enact a wish list of conservative policies. Donald Trump ended up winning the state, albeit by less than 23,000 votes, or about eight-tenths of a percentage point. Two years later, the state snapped back, again narrowly, as the Democrats ousted Walker, setting up perhaps the most pivotal battleground contest for Trump’s reelection bid in 2020.
Wisconsin has long been one of America’s premier “laboratories of reform,” in Justice Louis Brandeis’ phrase — a state developing new public policies, debating them vigorously and even tumultuously, observing whether they worked, and serving as an example for other states. North of the dominant westward paths of migration, the state was sparsely settled, first by New England Yankees and then by waves of immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia. The German language is seldom heard now, but German place names and surnames are common and, like the once plainly German beer and brat brands, now seem quintessentially American. But from the 1840s into the 20th century, Germans were among the nation’s most distinctive immigrants. On the rolling dairy land of Wisconsin and the orderly streets of Milwaukee, they built their own churches, kept their own language, and maintained old customs, from country weddings to Christmas trees to beer gardens — a source of friction in temperance-minded America. Wisconsin still has an orderliness and steadiness that owes something to its Germanic heritage, evident in its excellence in precision manufacturing, respect for higher learning, and its hold on its people. About half of Wisconsin residents, more than in any other state, reported in the 2010 census that they are of German descent.
Wisconsin’s economy has been an outgrowth of its immigrant and manufacturing heritage. Its high-skill, precision production at companies like Johnson Controls and Rockwell Automation jumped into gear in the late 1980s and helped lead the nation’s export boom of the 1990s. Wisconsin exceeded 100,000 tech jobs for the first time in 2016 and the state was poised to host an advanced Foxconn manufacturing plant near Racine (though both the billions of dollars in subsidies and doubts about the number of jobs to be created have made the project controversial). Wisconsin ranks either first or second in the nation in most categories of milk and cheese production. But due to improved productivity and competition from foreign countries — and from California’s giant agribusiness enterprises — the number of milk-cow herds fell by 50 percent from 2003 to 2019, when the total was fewer than 8,000; that rate has accelerated in recent years. Wisconsin, of course, is also a prime source of beer and sausage. Pabst, which began in Milwaukee in 1844, closed its operations there in 1996, but reopened a brewery, taproom and restaurant in a former German Methodist church in 2017. Over time, Wisconsin’s economy has ranked right around where the country is. “Wisconsin has suffered from the decline of manufacturing, but it isn’t a Rust Belt sob story like Michigan or Ohio. It hasn’t been among the places hardest hit by the opiate epidemic,” wrote Bloomberg columnist Noah Smith.
Wisconsin’s reputation for innovative public policy was established during the Progressive Era that began around 1900 and which owes its development to an extraordinary governor, Robert La Follette Sr., and the state’s German heritage. This is one of the two states that gave birth to the Republican Party in 1854 (the other is Michigan), and Germans, then arriving in America in vast numbers, heavily favored the GOP. They opposed slavery and welcomed the free lands Republicans delivered in the Homestead Act, the educational opportunities provided by land grant colleges, and the transportation routes constructed by subsidized railroad builders. This was the seedbed from which sprouted the Progressive movement founded and symbolized by La Follette. At a time when Germany was the world’s leader in graduate education and the application of science to government, La Follette had professors at the University of Wisconsin help develop the state workmen’s compensation system and income tax. The Progressive movement favored the use of government to improve the lot of ordinary citizens, an idea borrowed partly from German liberals and adopted by the New Dealers a generation later. La Follette became a national figure and after he died in 1925, his sons, and then liberal Democrats such as Sens. William Proxmire and Gaylord Nelson and Gov. Patrick Lucey, carried on his tradition — progressive at home and isolationist abroad.
Wisconsin also has a long history of labor activism. Before the violence of the 1892 Homestead steel strike in Pittsburgh and Colorado’s Ludlow Massacre in 1914, Milwaukee saw bloodshed on May 5, 1886, when 1,500 tradesmen and Polish immigrants demanding an eight-hour workday marched on the Rolling Mills iron plant in the city’s Bay View neighborhood. Gov. Jeremiah Rusk, who had served as a U.S. Army general in the Civil War, was in Milwaukee commanding 700 Wisconsin National Guard troops and gave the order to fire on the workers if they approached the iron works. Seven people, including a young boy, were killed. After the incident, Rusk famously said, “I seen my duty, and I done it.” South of downtown Milwaukee, a memorial stands in the Bay View area not far from where the blood was spilled. Wisconsin became the first state to grant collective- bargaining rights to public employees, in 1959.
Starting in the 1990s, Wisconsin became a laboratory for conservative reforms driven by Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, who beat a liberal Democrat in 1986 and was reelected three times. He cut taxes, sponsored a school choice program, and passed a series of welfare reforms — the nation’s most sweeping — that cut caseloads by equipping recipients to work. The 1996 overhaul of federal welfare policy may not have passed without Wisconsin’s example to give its backers confidence. When Thompson left to become George W. Bush’s Health and Human Services secretary in 2001, Wisconsin moved back toward the Democrats. From 1992 to 2006, it elected only Democratic senators, although sometimes by narrow margins, and Democrat Jim Doyle was elected governor in 2002 and 2006. The 2010 election produced another experiment in conservative reform when Republican Scott Walker, a former Milwaukee County executive, took office and proceeded to set off a firestorm with a proposal to limit the power of unions. The effort was successful, and Walker turned back an energetic, labor-driven effort to recall him in 2012 before winning reelection in 2014. By 2017, shorn of the coercive power of closed shops, union membership in the state had fallen substantially. Walker joined two other national Republican figures from Wisconsin – Rep. Paul Ryan, the party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee and later House Speaker, and Reince Priebus, the former Wisconsin GOP state chair who became chairman of the Republican National Committee and then-White House chief of staff under Trump. Two years later, all three had left public life.
Wisconsin’s population has grown, but at a modest rate – up only 2.2 percent since the 2010 census. The city of Milwaukee grew 1.6 percent, and its suburban counties – unlike many suburbs in other states – grew between 2 and 3 percent. The state’s fastest growth has occurred in Dane County (Madison), which is home to a growing tech sector driven by the presence of the University of Wisconsin; the county has expanded by 9.4 percent since 2010, pushing growth to rural areas to the south and northeast. Another growth area has been Outagamie County (Appleton), expanding 5 percent since the last census. The state remains primarily white, with a small, if rising, foreign-born population. Overall, Wisconsin is 6 percent black, 7 percent Hispanic and 3 percent Asian.
Politically, the three large “WOW” counties in the Milwaukee suburbs — Washington, Ozaukee and Waukesha — have traditionally been Republican, sometimes enough to cancel out Milwaukee County and its lopsided Democratic margins. Eastern Wisconsin — the counties along Lake Michigan and two or three counties inland, with small industrial cities in the Fox River Valley like Kenosha, Sheboygan, Appleton and Green Bay — is historically Republican turf. Western Wisconsin — areas along the Mississippi River, the small inland cities such as Wausau and Eau Claire and the counties along Lake Superior — have tended to be more Democratic. These patterns stem from ethnic differences: Eastern Wisconsin is more German, and western Wisconsin more Scandinavian.
The most Democratic region by far is around Madison. Indeed, “what’s going on in Dane County is gradually altering the electoral math in Wisconsin,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Craig Gilbert has written in one of his fine-grained analyses of Wisconsin election results. “Dane has been growing about four points more Democratic with each presidential contest since 1980, while adding thousands more voters every year.” La Crosse and Eau Claire host University of Wisconsin campuses, as does Rock County (Janesville), which is also home to Beloit College. The arc with this university belt has leaned Democratic. With statewide races in Wisconsin often won narrowly, a significant number of Wisconsinites are swing voters. A seven-county portion of southwest Wisconsin known as the Driftless Area (for its geology) “boasts the nation’s greatest concentration of Obama-Trump counties — places that voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016,” Gilbert has written. Wisconsin has elected and re-elected both conservative Republican Ron Johnson and liberal Democrat Tammy Baldwin to the Senate.
The 2016 presidential election in Wisconsin was dramatic from start to finish. The state had not voted Republican for president since Ronald Reagan’s 1984 landslide, and for much of the contest, Trump seemed to test Republican voters’ patience. Ted Cruz easily beat him in the primary, even though his Texas stylings were not an obvious fit for Wisconsin. After it became clear that Trump was going to be the GOP nominee, he and Ryan, by then the House Speaker, engaged in an on-again, off-again, awkward dance. The full extent of Clinton’s struggles in the state were hard to spot and were largely ignored by her campaign team. Her key weakness was in the rural areas and small towns common in Wisconsin where Democrats had historically been competitive. On Election Day, a state Barack Obama had won by seven points in 2012 ended up voting for Trump by less than a point.
Wisconsin reasserted its swinginess in 2018. Walker lost a tough battle for a third term to Democrat Tony Evers. Walker improved his performance in 16 of Wisconsin’s 20 least densely populated counties, but he lost ground in the state’s 35 densest counties, a trade that wasn’t enough to save his governorship. Then, just to stir the pot again, Wisconsin voters swung back to the right in an April 2019 judicial election. In the nominally nonpartisan judicial contest, the Republican base turned out just a little more, handing the conservative candidate a narrow win. Next up: The high- stakes 2020 presidential campaign, with both parties on tenterhooks.
Wisconsin’s Tony Evers achieved one of the biggest Democratic victories of the 2018 midterm elections, ousting two-term Republican Gov. Scott Walker. The low-key career educator and administrator defeated Walker by just over one percentage point. But that was enough to lead a Democratic sweep of statewide offices and vindicate the Democratic argument that Wisconsin was experiencing fatigue from Walker’s polarizing tenure. At the same time, the narrowness of Evers’ victory reinforced the notion that Wisconsin would be a pivotal state in the 2020 presidential election.
Evers (it rhymes with “weavers”) was born in Plymouth and met his wife Kathy there in kindergarten. His father practiced medicine at Rocky Knoll, a state tuberculosis sanitarium that also treated patients with silicosis, a disease often contracted by inhaling factory dust. His father would often testify on his patients’ behalf. “It was about social justice,” Evers told the New Yorker. “He could have gone into private practice, but he didn’t. He decided to be a county employee and work with people who struggled.” Evers earned a bachelor’s, a master’s and a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and began his career in education as a science teacher in Baraboo, later becoming a principal in Tomah and running school districts in Oakfield and Verona. Eventually, Evers became deputy state superintendent of public instruction; during that time, he fought and beat esophageal cancer. In 2009 Evers was elected state superintendent, a nominally nonpartisan post, and was easily reelected in 2013 and 2017. After he won his third term, Evers began considering a run for governor. “I realized that if I really wanted to make a difference for these kids in the state, I couldn’t rely on this position to do it,” he told the New Yorker. “The governor is the one who sets the tone.”
The governor in Evers’ mind was Walker, who had spent much of his time implementing a muscular conservative agenda. Not long after winning office, Walker called for curtailing collective bargaining rights for many of the state’s public employees. Walker became an instant political celebrity – and a target. But Walker’s collective bargaining changes survived court challenges and became law. He also signed laws tightening restrictions on abortion, enacted tough voter ID rules and eased restrictions on gun rights. Neither state Senate recall elections nor a recall attempt against Walker could vault Democrats into power; the incumbent notched a 53%-46% victory in the 2012 recall, becoming the first governor anywhere to survive such a vote. Walker won a second term in 2014, then flopped as a presidential candidate two years later, pushed aside by Donald Trump, who remade the party to be more rural and less suburban – a shift that hurt Walker’s reelection bid two years later. As Walker’s approval numbers sagged, his quest for a third term became a titanic battle in a politically energized and narrowly divided state.
As he prepared for his reelection bid, Walker touted the state’s economic gains on his watch. He knew that Democrats were energized and sought to delay special elections in order to give GOP candidates a better shot. After Democrats won a hard-fought judicial race in April 2018, Walker tweeted, “Tonight’s results show we are at risk of a #BlueWave in WI. The Far Left is driven by anger & hatred — we must counter it with optimism & organization. Let’s share our positive story with voters & win in November.”
The Democratic primary field was larger than any in state history, and it was not predestined that Evers would prevail. His rivals included Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Professional Fire Fighters Association of Wisconsin; former legislator Kelda Roys; state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout; former state Democratic chair Matt Flynn; Madison Mayor Paul Soglin; and activists Mike McCabe and Josh Pade. (Businessman Andy Gronik and state Rep. Dana Wachs quit the race before Election Day.) Mahlon and Roys received support from progressive groups (Roys aired an ad in which she breast- fed her baby) while Evers portrayed himself as a steady pragmatist. In the end, Evers ran away with it, winning 42 percent, ahead of Mitchell (16 percent) and Roys (13 percent). Evers leveraged his decisive primary victory into fundraising gold: In the first nine days after the primary, he raised $1 million, about twice what he had collected in the previous six months.
Education became a major campaign issue. For years, Evers and Walker had tussled over education budgets, higher education politics and legal issues. Walker’s sought to portray himself as the “education governor,” touting his advocacy for school choice, but his record on school funding was one of consistent cuts for most of his tenure. Evers painted his record on school funding as a negative. Marquette Law School pollster Charles Franklin told The Washington Post that while Wisconsin voters had previously been evenly split between those supporting higher education spending and those backing lower property taxes, voters in 2018 were running at about 60 percent in favor of more education spending and about 35 percent in favor of lower taxes – a promising sign for Evers.
A major issue in the race was a deal Walker had negotiated in 2017 (with President Donald Trump’s backing) to subsidize the building of a new, 13,000-employee factory complex in Mt. Pleasant for Foxconn Technology Group, the Taiwanese-based manufacturing partner for such tech giants as Apple, Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. Trump joined Walker in Wisconsin to break ground, but as time went on – and as more details of the financing became known – voters in the state became less enthusiastic about the project and its cost. Walker and the legislature had approved some $4.5 billion in tax incentives to support the project – reportedly the nation’s largest-ever subsidy for a foreign company. The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau projected that a return on that investment might come as late as 2042.
Both candidates were charismatically challenged – Madison’s newspaper, the Capital Times called the race “bland vs. bland” – but they differed sharply on policy. Evers backed driver’s licenses and in-state tuition for undocumented residents, while Walker attacked Democratic-backed proposals for reforming the criminal justice system, saying in front of photographs of violent criminals, “I want to keep them in for their full terms.” Evers, meanwhile, took Walker to task for supporting repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Several ex-Walker aides endorsed Evers, and national political figures flocked to campaign in the state – Trump, former President Barack Obama, former Vice President Joe Biden and a bevy of potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidates.
The result was in doubt until late absentee returns from Milwaukee County sealed the contest for Evers, 49.5%-48.4% — a margin of just over 29,000 votes. Walker got 35,000 more votes than he had in 2014, but the Democratic nominee amassed more than 200,000 more votes than his predecessor. Evers improved the Democratic showing in two key strongholds — Milwaukee County, with 31,000 extra votes, and Dane County (Madison), with 44,115 additional votes. Walker bled support in the Republican bastions of suburban Milwaukee. In Waukesha County, his 45-point margin in 2014 shrank to 33 points in 2018; in Ozaukee County, his winning margin shrunk from 41 points to 27; and in Washington County, it shrunk from 53 points to 45. “Exit polls showed Walker lost ground with at least two key groups of voters compared with his 2014 re-election victory,” the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Craig Gilbert wrote. “One was independents. Walker had won independents in each of his three statewide victories, including the recall, by margins ranging from 9 to 14 points. But in the 2018 exit poll, he was trailing among independents by 7 points. A second group was college graduates. Walker won voters with college degrees by 1 point in 2014, according to the exit poll that year. He was losing them by 13 points this year.”
The skirmishing didn’t end on Election Day. To the outrage of the victorious Democrats, Republicans in a lame-duck session sought to tie Evers’ hands as much as possible. Walker signed legislation that, among other things, hampered Evers’ ability to modify the Walker-created Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.; made it harder for Evers and the newly elected Democratic attorney general, Josh Kaul, to withdraw from the anti-Affordable Care Act lawsuit; and placed tighter limits on early voting. The new legislation was challenged in court, and those battles played out for months; and Evers sought to expand Medicaid under the health care law despite Republican opposition. Meanwhile, in April 2019, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau brought unwelcome budget news with an estimate that the state could face a shortfall of almost $2 billion in the 2021-23 fiscal years.