Christian Schneider

Author, Columnist

Can the GOP Win a Statewide Election in Wisconsin?

In this week’s Isthmus, my friend and colleague Marc Eisen explores a very topical point: whether a Republican gubernatorial candidate can win in Wisconsin.  After all, it has been since 1984 that Wisconsin has voted for a Republican presidential candidate, and since 1998 that it elected a GOP governor.

In his conclusion, Eisen posits that it may be ultra-liberal Dane County that decides the election.  He says:

All this boils down to a curious brew in Wisconsin. Republican candidates who pull too hard to the right just can’t win a statewide election. They’re buried by the huge Democratic margin in Dane County…

Dane County’s hyper-Democratic turnout could be a dream killer for conservatives in 2010. What could counter it is a pervasive sense of economic insecurity next fall. Worried voters will look for candidates who they feel can turn things around. That alone could make conservatives triumphant.

But is that true?  Do statewide democratic candidates rack up insurmountable vote totals in the City of Madison and Dane County?

When explaining statewide Wisconsin elections to people, I’ve always simplified things by arguing that liberal Dane County and Conservative Waukesha County cancel each other out.  Then, it becomes an electoral battle between the City of Milwaukee and the State of Wisconsin.  But am I right?

Let’s take a look at Dane vs. Waukesha Counties in the 2006 gubernatorial election, between Jim Doyle and Mark Green:

Doyle Green Difference GOP %











Total votes


% of total


As can be seen above, Doyle out-polled Green by 40,518 votes in the two counties.  (Doyle won Dane County by 91,359, and Green won Waukesha by 50,841.)  That margin accounts for 1.9% of the total statewide vote.  Doyle eventually won statewide head-to-head with Green with 53.7% of the vote.

Yet there’s an important point to be made here:  2006 was a heavily democratic year. With the War in Iraq still on the minds of voters in the state, Doyle beat Green handily, Republicans in the Wisconsin Senate lost 4 seats (and their majority), and the State Assembly, in which the GOP had once held a double-digit lead in seats, came within a hair of switching to the Democrats.  (It eventually did in 2008.)

If the polling that we’re seeing now is correct, 2010 looks to be more ideologically balanced than the last two elections.  Perhaps Republicans may even have an edge, with the economy still in bad shape and voters turning against sweeping health care reform.

So let’s look at a more balanced election, and how the two counties match up in non-Democratic avalanche years.  Take the last Attorney General election, in which Republican J.B. Van Hollen narrowly edged Kathleen Falk:

Falk Van Hollen GOP %











Total Votes


% of total


In this more balanced matchup, it is clear that the two counties essentially did cancel each other out.  Between them, Falk ended up with a net gain of a scant 3,425 votes – or less than .2% of the statewide vote.

So if we do see a more ideologically balanced election, this seems to be more representative of what we’d be looking at.  Dane and Waukesha Counties duel to a draw, and Milwaukee and Wisconsin face off to pick the victor.

In the 2010 gubernatorial election, this is made even more interesting by the fact that the two most likely candidates are both local government officeholders in Milwaukee (Scott Walker and Tom Barrett.)  So, depending on how they split the vote in their home territory (and Walker should do much better than GOP candidates of years past, seeing as how he’s won 3 countywide elections there as a conservative), it will most likely come down to that last fish fry in Osceola.

(And yes, I am aware that Mark Neumann is still in the GOP field for governor, but there’s a better chance of Liberace showing up and playing at my next birthday party than there is of Neumann winning the GOP nomination.)


  1. You mean to say that Neumann isn’t the best candidate? Hmmm . . . someone should tell Heather Tremptow that. 🙂

  2. Is Neumann still a candidate?

  3. Anyone hear the news about Neumann putting up his sign at the GOP headquarters only to find a Walker sign already there?

  4. If trends continue, the GOP should be in a good position in 2010. The daily kos poll showed that Republicans and independents are much more likely to turnout to vote and this will be a national election.
    If health care passes (with the taxes and some insurance companies going out of business), it could really tank the economy and increase job losses for small businesses. The Dem base may be more energized with a health care win, but so will Republicans and conservative independents. If health care doesn’t pass, there may be some temporary economic improvement that could buoy the Dems. But the looming tax increases in 2011 will kill the economy for the next cycle.

  5. Will the growing spread in the population of the counties change this in the future?

    Over the past 9 years, the spread has increased from ~66,000 to ~102,000, whereas back in 1980, it was only ~40,000…

  6. >>> some insurance companies going out of business???

    Give me a break. The health care industry is going to do just fine. Mandated insurance whether you can afford it or not? Subsidies to the industry for those at the bottom?

    They didn’t give $46 million in bribes for nothing. They may not like the public option because it doesn’t cost enough, but they’ll do just fine. Their stocks have already risen.

  7. Good figures. But I dunno about all this GOP optimism. From the two tables, it looks like Dems will have upper hand in the Dane-Waukesha matchup.

    Also, anyone remember the last time Milw County went GOP — me neither.

    Granted, it’s almost guaranteed the GOP will make Congressional gains in 2010 b/c of midterm effects. But Dem Party ID is still extremely strong in WI (especially in Milw County). If Barrett raises enough $ and creates non-stupid commercials — and the econ doesn’t tank — I predict Barrett by 5 pts.

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