15 Takeaways from the 2022 Midterm Election in Wisconsin
The suburban shift accelerates, the red WOW wall crumbles, Dane County is a turnout powerhouse, Mandela Barnes got *so close*, a missed opportunity in western Wisconsin and much more.
The Recombobulation Area is a six-time Milwaukee Press Club award-winning weekly opinion column and online publication written and published by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
Wisconsin’s midterm elections in 2022 saw mixed results at the top of the ticket with incumbent Democrat Tony Evers and incumbent Republican Ron Johnson both winning re-election.
But despite history being on the GOP’s side in this midterm year, Democrats in many ways exceeded expectations in the state, winning crucial legislative victories, preventing a Republican supermajority in the legislature, and winning other statewide races like the one for Attorney General.
As always, there is much to be learned from these election results, and we’re going to get into a whole lot of it.
1. The suburban shift is still happening in Wisconsin
Going into Election Night, one of the big picture questions I had for the state results at large was about suburban voters in Wisconsin. This 2022 midterm seemed like it would shape up to be a test case on whether or not the suburban shift towards Democrats that largely began during Donald Trump’s presidency was still unfolding, or if it had reached a point where there would be some level of backlash and a return to the GOP for some suburban swing voters.
After the election, the verdict is in: That shift is still happening. And it’s a big reason why Tony Evers is going to be Wisconsin’s governor for the next four years.
The suburban trend toward Democrats seemed to happen more slowly in the Milwaukee suburbs than it did in other parts of the country. Perhaps this is in part due to the deep rifts in the region that prompted the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Craig Gilbert in the 2010’s to identify the Milwaukee area as one of the nation's most politically polarized metros. The polarization was so deeply entrenched, it took awhile for it to shake loose. But this shift has been happening here for several election cycles now, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down at all. In fact, it seems to be picking up steam.
Some on the right are attributing this suburban shift solely to the influence of Donald Trump, who endorsed the underperforming Michels in this race. While the former president is undoubtedly a part of what’s happening – he has certainly turned many suburbanites, particularly women, away from the Republican Party – that obscures the bigger picture.
This has been a tense few years for state government in Wisconsin. The outsized influence and power of the state legislature under GOP control is becoming more clear, and with some Assembly seats flipping blue for the foreseeable future, perhaps suburban voters have not been on board with the obstructionist policies of legislative Republicans during the Evers years. It’s certainly possible that some of these voters preferred Tony Evers’ self-described “boring” demeanor and approach to governing to the scorched earth, obstructionist, conspiratorial, power-consolidation-at-all-costs policies of Robin Vos and the Wisconsin right.
Senate and Assembly seats in the Milwaukee suburbs are trending blue, whether Trump has a presence in the race or not. Perhaps Republicans in the state might have fared better in this election had they actually addressed the state’s wildly outdated and unclear 1849 abortion ban. Another factor could be the influence of talk radio, which has dominated with suburban Republican voters for decades, and now appears to be waning.
Additionally, as generational shifts continue to unfold and Democratic-leaning millennials become parents and move to the suburbs, many are not fighting the same culture wars as older generations. Some of the anti-LGBT, anti-abortion positions held by Republicans are ones that long predated Trump. Early 2022 school board elections that saw some far-right freakouts on issues like “CRT” and teaching about race or gender in schools ultimately proved to be positions of a vocal minority and not anything indicative of a coming suburban backlash.
The partisan divide among educational differences that’s emerged in recent years is a real one, too, and that divide has come to define much of these shifts in the suburbs. As college-educated voters continue to gravitate to the Democratic Party, these shifts will likely continue to hasten in years less advantageous for Republicans.
Changes in the Milwaukee suburbs were in many ways the story of the election in Wisconsin, but Dane County suburbs, too, are especially blue, growing both in Democratic victory margin and in overall population. Just over 220,000 people in Dane County voted for Evers in 2018, good for almost 75% of the vote – 5% higher than in 2014. That number grew again to more than 236,000 people and nearly 79% of the vote in 2022.
While much has been made of the trends in rural America when it comes to Democrats losing ground, their gains in suburban areas, both around Milwaukee and Madison, are becoming more pronounced and perhaps more permanent. Evers’ victory in 2022 exemplifies this shift more than any election that’s taken place yet in Wisconsin.
2. The era of the WOW counties as the GOP stronghold in Wisconsin is over
For ages, Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties formed a red wall in Wisconsin and were the true Republican stronghold in the state. That wall began to crack in 2020 with Joe Biden’s victory, and now with Tony Evers’ re-election, it’s starting to crumble.
The WOW counties are no longer the most reliable Republican base in Wisconsin. Two-term Tony put an end to that.
In Waukesha County, no Democratic candidate for governor gained more than 35% of the vote at any point this century. Tony Evers received nearly 40% of the vote in Waukesha County, while Tim Michels became the first Republican gubernatorial candidate in recent history to be under 60% in the key suburban county – the state’s third most populous county.
In terms of raw totals, just 54,500 Waukesha County voters voted for Democrat Mary Burke in 2014, and in 2022, more than 88,000 people in the county voted for Evers. That’s a pretty significant change in eight years.
Ozaukee County saw similar results. Scott Walker topped 70% in the lakeside suburban county twice (2012, 2014), but Tim Michels only got 55% of the vote there in 2022. The results looked much like the 2020 presidential results, which saw Trump over Biden by a 55%-43% margin (Michels-Evers was 55%-44%).
Ron Johnson fared a few percentage points better than Michels in both Waukesha (63%-37%) and Ozaukee (58%-42%) counties. Those numbers in the Johnson-Mandela Barnes race are almost identical to the Senate election results between Tammy Baldwin and Leah Vukmir in 2018.
Michels’ primary victory over Rebecca Kleefisch seemed to illustrate the party’s change from suburban to rural – he won 62 of 72 counties, but lost in more urban areas – but it really became clear with the overall general election results. Republicans are clearly losing ground in these suburban counties. Even Washington County, which is seeing much less of a shift than Waukesha and Ozaukee, saw Michels’ vote total slip under 70% for the first time for a Republican gubernatorial candidate since 2006.
Republicans are also still improving in rural areas. Barron and Washburn counties in northwestern Wisconsin, for example, saw most voters vote Democrat in 2006, when Jim Doyle was re-elected, but Michels gained more than 60% of the vote there, which is something Scott Walker never did in his four times on the ballot.
While Democrats might continue to face steep challenges in parts of the state north of Highway 10, rural communities in Wisconsin are not exactly growing, and Republicans running up margins there are only going to help them so much. Johnson was able to thread the needle between rural and suburban support to narrowly win re-election, but that’s in a historically GOP-advantage midterm. Presidential years and midterms with a Republican president would be quite different.
As Craig Gilbert notes here, Democrats won the Milwaukee media market in the race for governor for the first time in 40 years. This would have been unheard of during George W. Bush’s presidency or during Scott Walker’s time as governor.
The Walker factor is interesting here, too. When I interviewed State Rep Evan Goyke for my piece on Democratic candidate LuAnn Bird, I asked about trends in the suburbs and if he thought they’d continue. He brought up Walker’s influence on the grassroots level in the WOW counties.
“For a decade, Scott Walker was the Republican Party of the state of Wisconsin,” said Goyke. “I think he had a bit of outsized support in suburban Milwaukee from his time as county executive, and as a legislator in Wauwatosa. And so when the Walker machine was dismantled in favor of Tim Michels — or dismantled in ‘18 by Evers’ victory, and then re-dismantled when Republicans rebuked Rebecca Kleefisch — I think that the Republican Party of Wisconsin has lost on a lot of grassroots dedicated people that are in the Milwaukee suburbs.”
Bottom line: Wisconsin Democrats made major inroads in the WOW counties in 2020, going from Walker to Michels accelerated these trends, and Tony Evers was able to continue that trajectory on his way to a decisive re-election victory. The former Republican stronghold is now perhaps their greatest challenge.
3. About those Evers-Johnson voters…
Being in a state that has two high-profile statewide elections with winners emerging from different parties is a conundrum. Tony Evers and Ron Johnson both winning on the same ballot is certainly confusing, but something about this result feels especially Wisconsin. We’re a divided state, after all.
One example I often return to when it comes to Wisconsin’s independent streak is from the 2018 election, where Tammy Baldwin won outright in four key Fox Valley and northeastern Wisconsin counties, but Scott Walker also won those same four counties – Winnebago, Outagamie, Brown and Door. There were almost certainly more split-ticket Walker-Baldwin voters in 2018 when Baldwin won by 11% and Evers won by 1%. The gap between Evers and Barnes was much smaller.
While the number of independent voters is diminishing as people retreat into their respective camps, the razor-thin margins of victory we see here in Wisconsin mean independent voters have a huge say on any eventual outcome.
In the final pre-election Marquette poll, we noted that both Johnson and Evers had the edge with independent voters. It is difficult for candidates in Wisconsin to win statewide without the majority of those independent voters.
Incumbency is an important factor, too. There was an expectation throughout the race that Johnson would be running about 2% ahead of Michels and Evers would be running 2% ahead of Barnes. Evers ended up winning by about 3.5% and Johnson by about 1%, so those expectations bore out.
Johnson has represented the state for 12 years, and as governor, Evers is much more connected to the day-to-day lives of Wisconsinites, so people just know the two of them better. Something as simple as name recognition is always a factor in these races. For example, in the August Marquette poll taken after the partisan primary, more than 40% of people did not yet have an opinion of Mandela Barnes. He had the uphill battle of having to introduce himself to a huge portion of the state’s voters while facing an onslaught of negative ads. Michels faced a similar dynamic. That puts a lot of pressure on the challenger to overcome longer odds — enough to amount to those small percentage differences.
For Barnes, running in what proved to be the much closer race, he needed to make up that expected 2% non-incumbent deficiency by overperforming Evers in a place like Milwaukee County, where he’s from. He got closer to Evers’ margin there than almost anywhere – 70.2% for Barnes there to Evers’ 71% – but he needed that number to be a bit higher to ultimately pull off the upset victory.
Barnes also may have been hurt more by Biden’s poor approval numbers. Biden was down a net minus-20 with independent voters in the final pre-election Marquette poll, and it’s possible some of those independent voters chose Johnson as something of a check on Biden.
What also can’t be overlooked is that Wisconsin is a state with some of the most stark racial disparities seen anywhere in the nation, and the impact of racism – especially considering the nature of some of the attack ads in this race – cannot be discounted. It would be wrong to say it’s the only factor, but it would be just as wrong to think it played no role at all.
Evers and Barnes ultimately both did better than expectations. It’s just that Evers beating expectations resulted in a larger victory than 2018, and Barnes beating expectations resulted in a narrow loss. Speaking of which…
4. Mandela Barnes was so close
Going into Election Day, very few people were giving Barnes a chance at winning this race. Johnson had been the favorite in the race throughout and was ahead in the polls the entire way (save for one post-primary outlier). Johnson is an especially unpopular senator and his actions particularly since early 2020 made him seem more vulnerable than ever, but unlike in 2010 and 2016, he wasn’t going to be underestimated this time, and he had a lot going for him in a Republican-advantage midterm.
But this election ended up being the closest of his three victories, winning by less than 27,000 votes, just over 1%. In 2010, he defeated Russ Feingold by nearly 5%, and in their 2016 rematch, he won by about 3.5%.
Barnes gave Johnson a helluva challenge. He’s a 35-year-old first-term lieutenant governor running solo in a statewide race for the first time, running to be the first Black Senator in Wisconsin’s history, and despite beating all polling averages and exceeding all expectations, he came up just short. It’s a tough loss.
No analysis of this race is complete, either, without acknowledging the impact of outside spending in this race. Backing Johnson, billionaires Diane Hendricks and the Uihleins dumped tens of millions of dollars into this race to run negative attack ads on Barnes, and these were some of the worst attack ads happening anywhere throughout this election cycle. The money from these donors – who received massive tax breaks into the hundreds of millions of dollars through a provision Johnson fought for in the Trump tax cut – made a huge difference.
There’s going to be a whole lot of what-ifs when it comes to this race. People will be picking this over for a long time, and with good reason. Barnes had a shot. We saw it in that final pre-election poll. We saw it in the momentum he carried from strong performances in the debates and into the home stretch of the race. We saw it at North Division High School with Barack Obama. It just wasn’t enough, in the end. And there are no awards for “almost” in politics.
The coalition Barnes helped build in this campaign is going to carry on, grow and evolve. The generational shift happening in America we saw exemplified in this campaign is only going to accelerate in the years to come. This is not the end of something, it’s the beginning.
But this unbelievably close loss is going to sting for a long time. This is the closest Senate race in Wisconsin since 1914. And it happened with a flawed-but-formidable young candidate trying to oust a uniquely bad incumbent senator. We’re going to need to further recombobulate to truly process this result. It’s an especially tough one.
5. Western Wisconsin should be furious with national Democrats
If there’s any race where people should really be playing the “What If?” game in Wisconsin, it’s in the 3rd Congressional District, where Republican Derrick Van Orden flipped the seat, but underperformed expectations by a pretty significant margin. Democrat Brad Pfaff wound up losing by about 4% despite getting outspent in the race 4-to-1.
Democrat Ron Kind held this seat for two decades, and held on during the last election cycle despite Trump winning his district. Why national Democrats – who completely abandoned this race in the home stretch – wouldn’t invest here is a total mystery. Van Orden was a deeply flawed candidate and fit the mold of the MAGA candidate who did poorly in this midterm election, but it just seemed like they conceded this race at the outset and made no effort to do anything differently. It is a baffling decision, and one that will reverberate for years.
And considering the tight margin Barnes lost by, could investing in this race have helped build Democratic support in this key swing region in a way that could have made an impact upstream? Impossible to say, but folks in La Crosse, Eau Claire, Stevens Point and in many of those rural areas where local progressives might feel neglected by a changing Democratic Party have every reason to be livid with what happened here. This seat will likely remain Wisconsin’s most competitive congressional race, but losing it now is going to make it that much harder to win it back. In a night with many Democratic success stories, this stands out as a real failure on the part of the party.
6. Wisconsin Republicans’ four-year obstruction strategy failed
For four long years, Robin Vos and legislative leaders in Wisconsin did everything they could to make Tony Evers a one-term governor. They stripped powers from him before he came into office, they refused for years to confirm cabinet appointments, they refused to legislate for months on end during times of genuine crisis, and they gaveled in and gaveled out of special session after special session.
None of it worked, in the end. Maybe now they’ll consider gaveling-in and staying in session and actually get some work done for the people in this state.
(hey, a guy can dream, can’t he?)
7. There will be no Republican supermajority in Wisconsin
I already wrote about this one, but it is one of the big wins of the night. And while the Republican gerrymander is getting national attention for how unspeakably unfair it is, it is truly amazing what is considered a win here for Democrats in this arena.
8. Is Door County a blue county now?
In 2020, one of the few counties to flip from red to blue going from Trump in ‘16 to Biden in ‘20 was Door County. And now in 2022, Evers won in Door County by about 5%. However, Barnes lost here by just 75 total votes, so it was a red county on the Senate map.
This is becoming a pretty interesting swing county in Wisconsin. Tammy Baldwin won there in both 2012 and 2018, and Ron Johnson has now won there in all three of his victories. Door also went for Scott Walker each time he was on the ballot.
So no, Door is not a blue county. But it is interesting to see just how often it seems to pick the winner in statewide races in Wisconsin.
Speaking of which…
9. Who are Wisconsin’s ultimate swing voters?
I tweeted this as a bit of a joke the other night, but it is really fascinating to see the range of outcomes that Wisconsin produces from election to election. I genuinely want to know more about these swing voters. If you are one of them, email me at email@example.com. There might be a story here.
And if you’re a Romney-Burke-Clinton-Vukmir-Trump-Michels-Barnes voter, I really want to talk to you.
10. The valiant runners-up
It is hard to run for public office in 2022. That’s especially true in races where it’s clear that the candidate faces extremely long odds of winning. So for Democrats like Ann Roe (candidate in the 1st Congressional District), Mike Van Someren (candidate in the 5th), Richard Ausman (candidate in the 7th) and even Erik Olsen (Republican candidate in the 2nd) and Tim Rogers (in the 4th), they deserve commendation for running in these difficult races. We noted in our live blog how it was unfortunate to see no Democratic candidates run in the 6th and 8th districts, but we also must point out the ones who did put the time and effort into running in these difficult races. Kudos to them, truly.
Same goes for the dozens of State Senate and Assembly candidates who might not have won, but campaigned hard and knocked doors and rallied support because, as we’ve said over and over, democracy is built from the ground up, and these races make a real difference all the way up to the top of the ticket and across the state.
11. Midwestern governors and the pandemic
You know, we didn’t hear much about covid during this election. It ranked at the bottom of concerns polled by Marquette, and it didn’t really register as a big issue throughout the campaign.
But in the absence of a functioning federal government in 2020, governors played an outsized role in the pandemic response. We got to know them all pretty well. And it is perhaps notable that all of the Democratic governors from the Midwest won re-election, despite it not being a typically Democratic year. Minnesota’s Tim Walz, Illinois’ JB Pritzker, Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer and Wisconsin’s Tony Evers all won. It’s possible voters saw them as stabilizing presences in the face of some of the more extreme responses from Republicans in these midwestern states. In Michigan and Minnesota, too, Democrats also won trifecta control by flipping the balance of their legislature. That is going to be something to watch going forward, too, especially in comparison to the divided government of Wisconsin.
12. Democrats statewide winning streak ends (sort of)
Trump winning in Wisconsin in 2016 gave Democrats a real wake-up call, and they responded by winning 10 of the next 11 statewide races. It might be time to put this oft-cited statistic to rest now. Evers won, as did Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul, and it’s likely Secretary of State Doug LaFollette will win, too. But Democrats lost the race for State Treasurer, and of course, Ron Johnson won the race for Senate. Winning 13 of the last 16 statewide races just doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. It’s still pretty good, though.
13. Dane County is the state’s electoral powerhouse
Take a look at Dane County’s turnout and margin in this election and you’ll be quoting the governor – “holy mackerel, folks!” Tony Evers and Mandela Barnes ran up just enormous margins in the fastest-growing county in the state, each getting more than 77% of the vote in the county.
Dane has always been a Democratic stronghold, but this is like nothing we’ve ever seen before. As WisPolitics points out, “The 174,233-vote margin Dane County gave Evers was more than the 171,686 votes it cast overall in the 2002 gubernatorial campaign.”
More than 300,000 people voted for governor in Dane County this year, breaking the record they set in 2018. More than 236,000 people voted for Tony Evers this year in Dane County alone. It is truly unbelievable how politically engaged and how overwhelmingly Democratic this county is.
14. Turnout in Milwaukee was down (but it’s complicated)
This is tough to see.
Turnout in the city was down, and it’s hard not to think that this is where the 27,000 votes that Mandela Barnes needed to oust Ron Johnson could have come from here in Milwaukee.
But Milwaukee is so often the target of voter suppression tactics – like disallowing drop boxes, which the city used so successfully in 2020 – and attacks that aim to depress the vote in this key Democratic stronghold. The city also lost population in recent years.
But as John D. Johnson of Marquette University notes, turnout was not just down in the city of Milwaukee, it was down throughout the region.
Much still to digest here. As always, Milwaukee contains multitudes. But we really need to reverse these turnout trends in the city. It’s a problem.
15. Triumphs and disappointments
The most important wins are the ones that did happen on Tuesday night. Re-electing Tony Evers was unquestionably the most important thing Democrats could have done in this election, full stop. Preventing the supermajority ranked a close second, once that very real possibility came into focus (and it came down to just two seats!).
But Ron Johnson winning another six-year term is a tough pill to swallow. It’s no secret how we feel about our senior Senator here at The Recombobulation Area. He is a uniquely terrible senator. He has remarkably few accomplishments in 12 years and his record is instead one of corruption, cruelty, incompetence and conspiracy theories. It is a tremendous disappointment to see him win re-election. It would have been incredible to see Mandela Barnes pull off the upset here.
It’s also a heartbreaker for us here at The Recombobulation Area to see LuAnn Bird lose a very close race in the 84th Assembly District. The final margin was about 2%, and while she was the underdog going against one of the more well-known local politicians in the Milwaukee area, it’s still tough to see such a remarkable and inspiring campaign come up just short.
Evers’ triumph over Michels will prevent Wisconsin from sliding down a slippery slope. Not to belabor the point because we’ve said it so many times throughout this campaign, but Wisconsin Democrats would be staring into an abyss had Michels won or Republicans had gained a supermajority. That isn’t happening, and thank goodness.
But it also feels like we were so close to so much more. Barnes defeating Johnson and Bird defeating Donovan would have meant so much, both in practical terms and through the larger message that wins there would have delivered.
Democracy in Wisconsin lives to fight another day. We wrote in May that we had the opportunity over the next 12 months to restore democracy in Wisconsin. Step one was re-electing Tony Evers. Done and done. Now, we turn ahead to the race for State Supreme Court this coming spring, where the balance of the court will be decided by the voters. A win for a liberal justice could potentially open up challenges to the state’s ridiculously unfair maps and put an end to the entrenched, outsized power of the unaccountable Republican-controlled state legislature.
The importance of that race cannot be overstated. On April 4, 2023, we’ll be ready.
Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Heartland Signal, Belt Magazine, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s won 13 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.