By Miranda Spindt for the Daily Caller Foundation on May 3, 2023
Since Wisconsin’s supreme court election resulted in an overwhelmingly blue outcome, the state’s GOP is on tenterhooks as they anticipate the 2024 election season — and for a good reason.
In April, liberal candidate Janet Protasiewicz beat conservative candidate Dan Kelly by ten points in Wisconsin’s supreme court race, ending a 15-year conservative majority in the state’s high court. This shift in power will have a great impact on issues like abortion and voting maps heading into the 2024 election cycle, but has also raised concerns over the future of political demographics. Republicans have been losing their competitiveness in the state for some time by failing to proactively win suburban votes during election seasons. To reverse this trend, Republican leaders must learn from their mistakes and do more to boost their message through advertising and voter contact.
While the United States Supreme Court’s abortion ruling played a huge hand in turning out liberal voters, an analysis of voting data by municipality shows shocking evidence that suburban Wisconsin voters have been rapidly shifting towards the Democrat party for years. Liberal communities in Milwaukee and Dane County have grown over the past decade, and surrounding Republican strongholds have tinged purple.
For example, Waukesha County has been one of the most important Republican counties in Wisconsin since their conservative votes cancel out the liberal votes from Dane County, increasing state election competition. Unfortunately, the report shows that 21 of the 24 Waukesha communities have shifted away from the Republican party by 20 points or more in the last three gubernatorial races. In 2014, Governor Walker won Brookfield by 46 points, then 28 points in 2018, and Tim Michels won by 8 points in 2022.
At the same time, support for the GOP in rural Wisconsin has grown — this proved to be the party’s saving grace in reelecting Senator Ron Johnson in 2022. The GOP carried rural areas by 5.5 points in the 2006 gubernatorial race. In 2010, Governor Walker won rural towns by 23 points and Republicans have won by similar margins since. Senator Ron Johnson won rural areas by 29 points, outperforming previous Republican candidates. Still, Ron Johnson won reelection by just one point. The red wave in rural Wisconsin will not be enough to help the GOP stand against the growing blue wave in suburban areas.
A popular explanation for this shift away from the GOP is the “Trump effect.” Since President Trump took office in 2017, the GOP has only won two of seven statewide elections in Wisconsin. By contrast, they won nine of thirteen during the Obama presidential years.
Additionally, Democrats have had more decisive victories since 2017, whereas both Republican victories failed to reach 51% of the vote. President Trump has certainly been a polarizing figure and lost white suburban voters by twelve points between 2016 and 2020. But the GOP’s declining support started before Trump and goes beyond him.
The GOP cannot be complacent in their voter outreach strategies, as was strikingly evident in this last supreme court race. Advertisements for the conservative candidate Dan Kelly were not on television until two weeks before the April election, while Janet Protasiewicz had been saturating the airways since January — before she even won the primary. Personally, I did not get text messages in support of Dan Kelly until a week before the election, nor anything at all in the mail.
GOP leaders should take care not to completely blame Trump or the abortion issue for their losses — there is clearly more they could be doing. If they want to have a fighting chance against the state’s increasingly motivated liberal party, conservative candidates will have to take a page from Protasiewicz playbook and begin advertising and contacting voters right after the primaries, if not sooner.
All hope is not lost for the future of the Republican Party in Wisconsin. However, this is a wake up call to not take historical voting trends for granted and be complacent in their voter communication strategies. The GOP must put in much more effort heading into 2024, or else they will risk completely handing off Wisconsin to the Democrat Party.
Miranda is a Policy Associate at a Wisconsin based think tank, a contributor for Young Voices, and lives in Waukesha. Follow her on Twitter @miranda_spindt.
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