Wisconsin Democrats: A Tale of Two Safe Place Counties

How do you appeal to voters statewide when your party seems married to two of the state’s most populous counties?

That’s the question the Democratic Party of Wisconsin (DPW) has going before it as it prepares to meet in early June for its annual state convention outside Middleton. How can the party move past its increasingly liberal bases in Madison and Milwaukee and still be a statewide party? After the seismic losses the party suffered in 2016, the idea of a “72 County Party” is at the top of the party’s grassroots strategy.

That’s the chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, Martha Laning. She says grass roots organizing will top the agenda at its convention June 2-3. Laning says leaders will echo the message that DNC Deputy Chairman Keith Ellison recently shared on MSNBC. He says the party needs to personally communicate with voters in all 50 states.

“That is how we’re going to win, we’ve got to invest in the entire country. We’ve got to stop ignoring the people who we know will vote for us or who we know won’t vote for us,” Ellison says.

Ellison laments the criticism the party had to absorb after the 2016 presidential election – that the DNC may have taken certain voting blocs for granted, including in Wisconsin. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton did not campaign here before the general election and Wisconsin was one of three states that tipped the scales to Republican Donald Trump. Laning says at the state convention, party leaders will discuss ways to implement Ellison’s message.

“It’s really important that the Democratic Party come back to a 72 county strategy. We need to work to do that and it’s challenging because the Republican Party has billionaires who just pour out money,” Laning says.

That all might sound great on paper, but history and voting patterns show it will be a tough row to hoe for state Democrats. In recent years, the party has become content with a campaign strategy of turning out massive numbers in Dane and Milwaukee counties believing that will be enough to get them electoral victory. While beneficial given the large Democratic numbers of votes to be found in these counties, it also looks to have been short-sighted as since 2010, the party has lost more statewide races than its won using this leftward-tilt strategy.

Yet, the numbers indicate that’s where they get their votes and where they plan on maintaining them. Since 2010, Democrats running statewide, in “Top of the Ticket” races such as governor or president have been able to count on Dane and Milwaukee counties for an average of 36 percent of their statewide vote total. The only race where they didn’t was 2012 during President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign. As the chart below shows, the figure’s been remarkably consistent over the past decade in regards to the party’s dependence on these two counties.

But what about Republicans, you might ask? They have a steady base of votes in the so-called “WOW counties” of Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington counties; that’s got to equal it out, right?

Not exactly. While the Wisconsin GOP is heavily-dependent on this counties, statewide candidates in November elections see roughly half-the number of votes Democrats do out of Dane and Milwaukee.

This discrepancy in where each party’s respective “votebanks” (loyal blocs of voters centered around a single-community) has essentially driven the destiny of each political party in Wisconsin. Republicans, forced to gather more votes in out-state and rural parts of the state have dominated these areas by focusing on the issues which matter most to them. Democrats, seeing that over one-in-three of their votes come from just these two counties, have focused all their attention on placating the denizens of Madison and Milwaukee – often giving the rest of the state nothing more than an afterthought.

With a structure and dependence designed to be built on the Madison-Milwaukee votebanks, can state Democrats make legitimate ends into the rest of the state without the assistance of a wave election? That’s hard to tell; but one thing that isn’t is where previous attempts at statewide outreach have failed.

For starters, all previous attempts rang hollow. Politics is about coalitions and when your base voter wants to go one way – as most liberal Democrats appear to be as they advocate the socialist policies of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders – the party’s leadership may be helpless at times to stop it. That clearly seemed to have been the case into the failed 2012 recall of Governor Scott Walker.

(Or for a more recent example, the heckling of longtime Democratic U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein at the California Democratic State Convention.)

The base wanted it, party leadership was likely brought along for the ride. What happens when Madison “progressives” and other members of “The Resistance” balk at attempts to increase the party’s ranks beyond the true-believers?

Another sign that DPW is addicted to Madison and Milwaukee, is that since 2010, five (2010, 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2017) of the eight state conventions the party has been held in the Madison or Milwaukee metro areas. The only out-state conventions were Appleton (2012), Wisconsin Dells (2014), and Green Bay (2016). Seven months after reliably blue out-state areas turned red, The DPW is gathering in its safest of safe spaces; Dane County.

Democrats haven’t announced yet where their 2018 convention will be, but would a guess of Milwaukee seem that far off?

Republicans on the other hand have been holding theirs in all corners of the state; showcasing an expanded reach in state politics. They’ve been in Green Bay twice (2012 and 2016), Wisconsin Dells twice (2011 and 2017), and Wausau (2013) and La Crosse (2015) once.

The only predictable thing about where the state GOP will be holding their convention appears to be that in gubernatorial years (2010, 2014, and 2018) they are in Milwaukee as some sort of “Good Luck Charm” for Governor Walker.

So are Democrats a “Two County Party” in Wisconsin? The fact that they admit they need to improve their outreach efforts tells you that they are.