By Adam Kelnhofer for

The Democratic formula for winning statewide has often come down to running up the vote in Dane and Milwaukee counties, winning western Wisconsin and cutting into the GOP margins in the Fox Valley and northern Wisconsin.

But Milwaukee County and its 19 municipalities comprise a more nuanced Dem area than vivid blue Dane County. Republican Scott Walker was elected county executive there and served nine years before winning the governor’s office in 2010. And “Reagan Democrats” were a thing on Milwaukee County’s south side long before disaffected union members sided with Donald Trump in 2016.

Milwaukee County’s voting landscape appears to be changing again as longtime suburban GOP strongholds are tilting blue, longtime observers say. That has spurred Dem efforts to maximize turnout this year — even in traditional GOP territory in the county. Meanwhile, Republicans see a lack of enthusiasm for Joe Biden’s campaign depressing turnout among a few key Dem constituencies, which they say could lead to a stronger than expected GOP showing this year.

Suburban strongholds

Democratic strategist Joe Zepecki said Dems are gaining traction among southern suburban areas in both the presidential and state legislative races.

“Greenfield, Hales Corners, Franklin, Oak Creek, those are pretty conservative places. However, they’re looking at Joe Biden in a way that they haven’t looked at many Democrats over the years,” Zepecki said.

Contested GOP seats around Milwaukee County are a sign of a shift towards more Democrats, Zepecki said, adding high support for Biden in Milwaukee County suburbs across the board has bolstered the campaign efforts against Republicans Reps. Dan Knodl of Germantown, Jessie Rodriguez of Oak Creek and Ken Skowronski of Franklin.

Zepecki said the change should come as a “neon warning sign for Republicans that this is not just the inner suburbs, this is not just some suburbs, this is deterioration in their vote share across every type of suburb there is.”

UW-Milwaukee Prof. Mordecai Lee said conservative legislators to the north, such as Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, are also showing signs that their once safe seats are now under threat.

While flipping longtime conservative state legislative seats around Milwaukee “would take a Noah’s flood of a blue wave,” the fact these seats are being actively defended means things are changing in the political landscape surrounding Milwaukee, Lee said.

Bob Spindell, a longtime GOP activist from Milwaukee County, said looking away from Democrats’ “fanfare” provides a different perspective on voting outcomes for Milwaukeeans.

“I think you’re going to see a higher percentage than normal for Trump,” Spindell said.

Republicans are hoping to capitalize on a lack of excitement for Biden among voters and stave off a blue tide. Added Spindell: “I think you’ll see a lot more votes for him, and also I don’t see any enthusiasm for Biden.’’

A lack of enthusiasm hurt Hillary Clinton’s campaign, helping Trump to crumble the Democrats’  “blue wall” in the upper Midwest.

Recent shifts

In recent history, Milwaukee County’s Dem margin has ranged from plus-12 for President Jimmy Carter, when he lost to Ronald Reagan in a race with a strong independent ticket that included former Wisconsin Gov. Pat Lucey, a Democrat, to plus-36 for Barack Obama’s two successful runs. Hillary Clinton also had a plus-36 margin vs. Donald Trump in the county, but she pulled some 43,000 fewer votes than Obama in 2012. The biggest GOP percentage in Milwaukee County during that span was Reagan’s 43 percent in 1984, the last time Republicans won the presidential race in Wisconsin before Trump. Trump won the state by just under 23,000 votes.

This year, observers see many of the suburban areas to the north once considered GOP strongholds turning blue while Republican efforts to flip Black and Hispanic Dem voters in the city have resulted in little change over the past two election cycles. They add many older Milwaukeeans are being replaced by younger, more liberal voters, but the once dependable Dem-voting union workers who voted for Reagan still have a strong presence in many areas outside the city.

Lee said Milwaukee, in terms of voting preferences, is a story of two halves. “One half of the city of Milwaukee is majority-minority in terms of African Americans and Hispanics,” Lee said. “The other half of Milwaukee County used to be blue-collar labor Democrats, white.”

Robert Booth Fowler, an emeritus professor of political science at UW-Madison, wrote in his book, “Wisconsin Votes,’’ about what he called the New Deal suburbs on the southern side of Milwaukee. “They are largely white cities that often grew up as industrial centers and homes for the work class in the late nineteenth century. …They all used to be intensely Democratic in their voting behavior, but the New Deal-forced allegiance to the Democratic Party waned in good part because the party’s positions on social and cultural issues often appeal more to residents of affluent Whitefish Bay than they did, and do, to working-class resident of Cudahy.’’

As to the Black vote, he wrote in 2008: “The Johnson election of 1964 marked the end of just about all Republican support in black areas in Milwaukee. That year and for virtually every statewide election since, the Democratic percentage in black precincts has been more than 90 percent.’’ He said Hispanic voting data was less available, but “figures indicate a Democratic vote that, while overwhelming, is much lower than that in the African-American community.”

That dependable support from minorities has helped turn Milwaukee County blue almost every presidential election.  President Dwight D. Eisenhower was the most recent Republican presidential candidate to turn Milwaukee County red, winning by 12.5 percent or nearly 50,000 votes in 1956, according to data from the 1958 Wisconsin Blue Book.

Black and Hispanic voters

Spindell, who is also a Republican member of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, noted the state Republican Party this year set up its first ever campaign office in the city of Milwaukee, choosing the predominantly Black north side “to show that we really care about the Black community.”

He said Biden is not exciting Black voters, claiming African-Americans are open to Trump because of Biden’s role in the 1994 crime bill, a low pre-COVID unemployment rate during Trump’s term and the abortion issue.

“I don’t see any enthusiasm for Biden,” Spindell said. “And if the Dems don’t have enthusiasm for Biden, then I don’t think they can count on the Black community having a huge turnout.”

Despite their recent increased efforts to gain Black votes, Spindell said the Republican Party has had more success with Hispanic Milwaukee voters.

“I mean obviously the Republicans get a higher percentage of Hispanic votes than they do of Black votes,” Spindell said. During his time as member of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, he has seen “just this huge intensity for Trump, for the loving of Trump.”

However, Milwaukee County Democratic Party Chair Chris Walton said Hispanic Milwaukeeans still generally vote blue, but they don’t go out to vote in the same volume as other voting demographics. Districts on the south side, not just Hispanics, have seen lower turnout in recent elections.

Walton said Dems plan to counter Republican strides with Hispanic voters by pushing to increase overall turnout among them.

Trump’s loss of traction with voters throughout the county could also help Dems flip several Republican seats, Walton said.

“I think we’re going to get some surprises on election night. I think Milwaukee is going to be a little bluer than we normally are, which is going to do a lot of damage to the Republican Party,” he said.

Walton added: “And that’s mostly because the Republican Party has done a lot of damage to Milwaukee and to the city, and we’re tired of it, we’re not gonna take it anymore.”

Lee said the Republican Party has historically been able to count on the second half of Milwaukee County: white suburban voters further from the city.

“Over the years, really since President Reagan, the Republican Party has successfully made a pitch to them over things like family values,” Lee said of the Reagan Democrats. He said as unions have receded and blue-collar workers got older and moved to the suburbs, “they more and more felt in harmony with family values [of Republicans] than with the economics of the Democratic Party.”

Milwaukee’s slow-moving landscape

The city of Milwaukee itself hasn’t changed much from its longstanding history of voting for Dems, but northern suburbs are gaining a more purple hue than their usual bright red. Former broadcaster Mike Gousha said the city and North Shore suburb Shorewood have been liberal areas for a long time, but “you can start to see changes in Whitefish Bay and Fox Point, Bayside, even in some parts of Mequon.”

Gousha, a distinguished fellow in law and public policy at Marquette University Law School, said some suburban areas such as Oak Creek, Franklin and Greenfield have indeed become even more Republican over the years.

“We have seen them become a bit more Republican over time,” Gousha said of the southern and southwestern suburbs. “And we have seen the North Shore suburbs like Shorewood, Whitefish Bay, Fox Point and Bayside becoming a bit more Democratic.”

Lee, Spindell and Gousha all said suburbs that used to have a considerable amount of Republican support such as Whitefish Bay, Fox Point and Wauwatosa have become more Democratic.

Gousha noted some western suburbs such as Wauwatosa have already made the transition from Republican strongholds to becoming more liberal. “Younger residents have different priorities, different things that they want to see in their community,” Gousha said.

Gousha and Lee both said Wauwatosa’s transition from voting for far right candidates such as George Klicka, a member of the John Birch Society first elected in 1966, to electing Dem state Rep. Robyn Vining of Wauwatosa in 2018 as evidence of the changing political landscape.

All of these trends towards Democratic candidates will make it difficult for Trump to gain the votes he needs to win Wisconsin, and he will likely have to count on the more rural areas outside bigger cities to gain those votes.

The change comes as a shock to Zepecki, a Hales Corners native. “What’s wild about this year is that in every region of Milwaukee County, Democrats are more competitive,” Zepecki said.

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