Craig Gilbert reports:
“MADISON – Amid all the defeats and disasters Democrats have suffered in Wisconsin, there’s one spot on the map that gets brighter for them all the time.
The capital city and its suburbs comprise one of America’s premier “blue” bastions.
Dane County’s liberal tilt is nothing new.
But obscured by the Democratic Party’s statewide losses since 2010 is the rapid, relentless growth of its voting power.
Fueled by a tech boomlet, Dane is adding people at a faster rate than any county its size between Minnesota and Massachusetts. Between 2015 and 2016, it accounted for almost 80% of Wisconsin’s net population growth and is now home to more than 530,000 people.
“It is just stunning what has happened,” said economic consultant and former university administrator David J. Ward, describing a physical transformation that includes an apartment-building spree in downtown Madison as well as Epic Systems’ giant tech campus in suburban Verona, a new-economy wonderland where more than 9,000 employees (many in their 20s) work in a chain of whimsical buildings planted in old farm fields.
What’s going on in Dane County is gradually altering the electoral math in Wisconsin. Dane has been growing about four points more Democratic with each presidential contest since 1980, while adding thousands more voters every year. As a result, it packs an ever stronger political punch. Democrats won the county’s presidential vote by a margin of roughly 20,000 votes in 1984, 50,000 votes in 1996, 90,000 votes in 2004 and almost 150,000 votes in 2016.
Mobilized against a lightning-rod Republican governor (Scott Walker) and president (Donald Trump), these voters are poised to turn out in droves for the mid-term elections this fall. Organized political groups and informal political networks proliferate here, some with deep roots, some triggered by the state’s labor and recall fights, some sparked by Bernie Sanders’ presidential run last year, some spurred by Trump’s election.
“I’ve never seen this level of political activity,” said Democrat Mark Pocan, who represents Madison and the surrounding area in Congress.
“Right now, as (county) clerk, I have to assume crazy turnout,” said Scott McDonell, who orders the election ballots for Dane County. “Because people are so intense about wanting to send a message.”
Dane is the embodiment of some of the Democratic Party’s rosiest national trend lines: a growing appeal to the young and college-educated and a growing dominance in prosperous metropolitan areas.
But Dane also points to the double-edged nature of that appeal. A parade of GOP victories in 2010, the 2012 recall fight, 2014 and 2016 shows that this area’s rising clout guarantees nothing for Democrats when it’s offset by deep losses in small towns and northern blue-collar battlegrounds like Green Bay and Wausau. In 2016, Dane delivered a bigger vote margin for Hillary Clinton than it did for Barack Obama, but Clinton lost the state thanks to her (and her party’s) epic collapse in rural counties.
These two dynamics — Dane getting bigger and bluer, northern Wisconsin getting redder — are at the heart of the battle for Wisconsin.
Some strategists in both parties believe the two are at least partly connected; that Democrats’ increasing reliance on Madison (and Milwaukee, the party’s other anchor) makes it harder for them to compete for more conservative blue-collar and rural voters.
When Madison Mayor Paul Soglin joined the vast Democratic field for governor last month, Walker immediately played the “Madison” card.
“The last thing we need is more Madison in our lives,” said Walker on Twitter, saying “businesses have left and murders have gone up.”
Democrats scoffed at Walker’s grim portrayal of the city and accused him of beating up on a place that embodies the economic success he covets for the state.
The episode set off a round of feuding over whether Madison is a damaging symbol for Democrats because of its left-wing image or an increasingly attractive one because of its economic vigor.
“We’re obviously doing something right and a lot better than the way (Walker) is doing it for the rest of the state. And it’s not because we’re the home of the state university and it’s not because of state government, because he has spent the better part of the last seven years strangling them,” said Soglin in an interview, arguing that his city represents a growth model of investing in education and quality of life and “creating a great place where people want to be.” (He contrasted it to the use of massive subsidies to bring FoxConn to Wisconsin).
Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, who also bristled at Walker’s tweet, pointed to the state’s new ad campaign to draw millennials from Chicago, noting the Madison area is the one place in Wisconsin attracting that age group in significant numbers. (Many of Epic’s employees settle in downtown Madison and take a dedicated bus every day to the Verona campus.)
“Guess where millennials want to live? In communities that are tolerant, that invest in quality of life, that care about their environment, that provide recreational opportunities for them, a thriving downtown — everything Dane County has. We’ve worked on that,” Parisi said.
In a statement for this story, Walker political spokesman Brian Reisinger said that contrary to what his opponents say, the governor isn’t anti-Madison.
“The governor believes there are good people in Madison, like everywhere else in Wisconsin. But that doesn’t change the harm of a liberal governing philosophy that pits those hard-working families against their best interests. The governor enjoys a Badger game as much as anyone — the point is, Madison would be much better off if it had lower taxes and a better business environment, like the rest of Wisconsin does under his leadership.”
“It was liberal Madison politicians who gave us big budget deficits, massive tax increases, and record job loss,” Reisinger said.
But if the story of Madison figures in the campaign debate this year, the conversation could be awkward for both sides.
Walker is faced with the inconvenient fact that Wisconsin’s fastest-growing county is a place Republicans love to put down and where his party could hardly be less popular. National studies and stories in recent years have singled out Madison as an emerging technology hub for health care, life sciences, even gaming — much of the growth rooted in the University of Wisconsin and its myriad research centers. Madison routinely makes “best cities” lists. Nonstop flights to San Francisco are starting this summer, a sign of its tech growth. Dane has added far more private-sector jobs than any other Wisconsin county since Walker took office. And in a state where more people are moving out than moving in, it has experienced a net in-migration of more than 20,000 since 2010. No other county in the state is close.
You could argue that the tech-fueled expansion in greater Madison is the state’s brightest economic story, and Epic, the health care software firm that has been adding almost 1,000 employees annually, its brightest business story. But Walker, an aggressive cheerleader for Wisconsin’s economy, has not mentioned either in his eight “state of the state” speeches.
Meanwhile, this area’s prosperity creates its own “messaging” challenge for Democrats, who are painfully aware that “Madison” comes with baggage for some Wisconsinites, whether they see it as a symbol of government or left-wing politics or intellectual elitism or urban culture.
“It’s all of that combined, which in my mind is why it’s so powerful. It’s whatever part of it irks people,” said UW-Madison political scientist Kathy Cramer, who chronicled perceptions of the state’s capital in her book, “The Politics of Resentment,” about rural attitudes toward cities and their effect on politics.
Economics may be adding another wrinkle to this dynamic. Cramer said that Madison’s relative prosperity has the potential to provoke either “pride” or “resentment” elsewhere in the state.
Zach Brandon, a Democrat and head of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, laments Madison-bashing, but said, “Madison, too, has to make sure it’s telling a story that doesn’t separate us from the rest of Wisconsin.”
Thanks to Trump’s election, Walker’s victories and even the attention Cramer’s book has received here and nationally, voters and activists here seem more sensitive than ever to their cultural and political distance from some parts of the state and how that can influence elections.
“You get up in these others parts (of) Wisconsin and they don’t like Madison people,” said Ronald Stucki, a Democratic voter in Dane County, who was interviewed as he spoke to a party volunteer canvassing in the city last month.
Some Madison progressives said they hoped Democrats don’t nominate someone from Madison against Walker because they feared it would make it harder to win votes elsewhere. The party’s very crowded field includes several Madison candidates, and the Democratic U.S. senator on the 2018 ballot, Tammy Baldwin, is from Madison.
(The actual history of Madison Democrats in big statewide races isn’t a bad one at all: winners include Baldwin for Senate in 2012, Russ Feingold for Senate in 1992, 1998 and 2004, and Jim Doyle for governor in 2002 and 2006; losers include Feingold for Senate in 2010 and 2016 and Mary Burke for governor in 2014.)
There is no way to really measure whether, or how much, the Democratic Party’s growing reliance on Madison and Milwaukee has contributed to the party’s struggles elsewhere in the state. Both trends are part of a growing partisan divide nationally between cities and small towns and between college grads and blue-collar voters.
In private conversations, GOP strategists differ over how to view the inexorable growth in Dane’s voting power. Some say it puts Democrats in a political box, dragging them further to left and out of touch with “average” voters. They also note that it’s little use to Democrats in legislative races since that vote is so concentrated geographically.
But some in the GOP are troubled by the trend lines. While many rural Republican counties are losing population, the bluest part of the state is growing the fastest — and still getting bluer. Even the burgeoning suburbs outside Madison have shifted sharply Democratic.
For many years, the Republican answer to Dane was Waukesha County, the big, ultra-red, high-turnout suburban county west of Milwaukee. But Dane has been adding more jobs and more voters than Waukesha County for many years. Since 2010, it has added five times as many people as Waukesha County. In fact, Dane’s combination of size, one-party dominance, growth and extreme turnout has few analogs anywhere in the U.S. And while Wisconsin’s rural voters have a history of swinging, the unflagging expansion of the Democrat vote around Madison is the most enduring trend anywhere on the Wisconsin political map.
What does that mean for elections beyond 2018?
Craig Gilbert talks about his Lubar Fellowship analyzing Wisconsin in the age of Trump. Mike De Sisti, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Here is how pollster Charles Franklin of the Marquette Law School quantified Dane’s trajectory: based on a nearly 40-year trend line in presidential voting, the Democratic Party’s winning margin in Dane County is growing by more than 15,000 votes every four years. That’s bigger than the winning margin in two of the state’s past five presidential contests.
Here is another way to measure it:
Back in 1980, Dane County accounted for 7% of the statewide vote and gave Democrats a 17-point advantage. When you multiply those two numbers together, it means Dane boosted the party’s statewide performance by a little more than one point. Its “value” to Democrats has quintupled since then. In 2016, Dane accounted for more than 10% of the statewide vote and voted Democratic by almost 50 points. Multiply those numbers together, and it means Dane boosted the party’s statewide performance by 5 points.
In their Wisconsin victories, Walker and Trump overcame this trend by making their own deep inroads elsewhere. But as long as it keeps getting bluer and growing faster, Dane County may become harder for Republicans to neutralize.
Craig Gilbert is reporting an ongoing series on the shifting political landscape in Wisconsin after the state helped propel Donald Trump to the White House.
Energizing, registering, and “getting out the vote” are critically important. The “will of the real majority” across the country is what the GOP really fears! And, that’s what didn’t prevail in 2016! That’s why the GOP is so dedicated to voter suppression and gerrymandering! And skewing the census data against ethnic minorities and Democrat-leaning jurisdictions is high on the Trump/Sessions “suppression of democracy” agenda.
Here’s a sense of “deja vu.” When I was at U.W. Law School in the early 1970s, now Madison (and Dem Governor hopeful) Mayor Paul Soglin was one of my classmates. He actually sat in front of me in Environmental Law, although he seldom actually made a physical appearance. That’s probably because he was busy being the “Boy Wonder” progressive City Councilman who eventually ousted Madison’s arch-conservative GOP Mayor and became the “Boy Mayor” while Cathy and I were still living on Madison’s East Side.
After being out of office for a while, he made a “comeback” and is now Mayor of “MAD-CITY” again! Not a “Boy Wonder” any more. But, still “stirring up the pot.”