KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— The Wisconsin Supreme Court sided with state Democrats on a new congressional map, but the map does not change much.
— Republicans are favored to win 6 of the state’s 8 seats this year.
Rating the new Wisconsin map
In Wisconsin, a closely divided state known for fierce partisan battles, it was no surprise when Democratic Gov. Tony Evers vetoed the redistricting maps that his Republican legislature drafted. In a manner similar to the Pennsylvania situation that we covered last week, the process wound up in the state Supreme Court.
Despite their different partisan compositions — Democrats control Pennsylvania’s court while Republican-aligned judges hold a majority in Wisconsin’s — both essentially arrived at the same conclusion: They chose minimal change maps. In Wisconsin’s case, Evers submitted a plan to the court that made relatively minor changes to the state’s 8 districts, vis-à-vis the legislature’s plan, which featured more territorial turnover. The court’s 3 Democratic-aligned justices and 1 of the 4 Republican-aligned justices selected Evers’ plan because they argued it made the least amount of change to the current map, which was a Republican gerrymander created a decade ago. So even though Democrats “won” this court battle, the map still favors Republicans in a closely-divided state.
Despite Wisconsin’s swingy nature, we expect Republicans to retain all 5 seats that they currently hold — and they have a good chance at claiming a 6th.
The reason for this is not just because the map is a modified version of a Republican gerrymander, but also because of Democrats’ notoriously poor geography in Wisconsin. Put simply, too much of Democrats’ strength is clustered around Madison and Milwaukee, which are Congressional Districts 2 and 4, respectively. Joe Biden claimed 70% or more in both of those blue bastions. Donald Trump, meanwhile, carried 4 districts with between 56% and 61% of the vote, and won the final 2 with narrower majorities. This arrangement isn’t too detrimental for Democrats at the state level, because they can just run up the score in the urban centers, but at the congressional level, the clustering hurts.
Democrats have held WI-3 since 1996 thanks in large part to the personal popularity of Rep. Ron Kind (D, WI-3). In 2012, Kind was given some help by Republicans mappers, as they turned his western seat into more of a Democratic pack. At the time, Republicans were more concerned with shoring up their prospects in the neighboring WI-7, which had just flipped in the 2010 wave. As it was, Republicans easily held WI-7 last decade, and it was Kind’s district that became the most competitive in the state thanks to pro-Trump trends in much of outstate Wisconsin.
After Barack Obama carried WI-3 by 11 points in 2012, Trump carried it by 4.5 in 2016, and he slightly improved there in 2020. Luckily for Kind, he was unopposed in 2016, and Republicans failed to recruit a big name against him in 2018. But his 2020 reelection was the closest of his career — he won by less than 3 points. In August 2021, Kind announced his retirement.
Fresh off WI-3’s closer than expected result last cycle, national Republicans were quick to get behind 2020 nominee Derrick Van Orden, who is running again. A retired Navy SEAL, he seems to have a clear shot at the nomination. A report from last year claimed that Van Orden used campaign funds to travel to Washington, D.C. during the time of the insurrection — though he has pushed back on it, Democrats are using it to tie him to the events of Jan. 6. For their part, Democrats have a handful of declared candidates for the seat, but state Sen. Brad Pfaff, who represents the La Crosse area, is the favorite.
We are starting WI-3 at Leans Republican. Aside from the trend of the area, recent history is not on Democrats’ side: 1990 was the last midterm cycle that the White House’s party held an open seat that voted against the sitting president 2 years earlier.
Though they are likelier than not to end up down a seat after the 2022 elections, the new configuration of WI-1 may provide Democrats with a credible target in a future cycle. For the first time since the 1990 elections, WI-1, which is in the southeastern corner of the state, will not include any of Waukesha County, an area west of Milwaukee proper that is known for its conservatism. Map 1 shows the changes in WI-1.
Map 1: Territorial changes in WI-1
The area the district lost — mostly its portion of Waukesha County — broke to Trump by 2:1, while the areas it picks up — a few closer-in Milwaukee suburbs and some peripheral cities — favored Biden 55%-43%. With these changes, Trump’s margin in the district drops form 54%-45% to 50%-48%, making it, at least on paper, less Republican than WI-3.
Half of WI-1’s population comes from the duo of Kenosha and Racine counties, which are older industrial communities situated between Milwaukee and Chicagoland that hug Lake Michigan. Biden lost the pair by about 7,000 votes, but had he matched John Kerry’s 2004 showing, who carried them by a combined 293 votes, it would have been enough to carry the district. Biden also fared slightly worse than Kerry in Janesville, the district’s third largest city, and the home of former Speaker of the House and 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan. But Kerry performed worse than Biden in the Milwaukee County part of the district — if they hope to eventually win the district, Democrats may to have to find a way to put together the best elements of both coalitions.
When Ryan retired in 2018, after 2 decades representing the district, now-Rep. Bryan Steil (R, WI-1) held the open seat by 12 points. In 2020, Steil had another strong performance: his margin was more than double that of Trump’s in the district. We are starting the district off as Likely Republican, but in a better year for Democrats, perhaps it will be more competitive.
So, despite its purple nature, it seems more likely than not that Wisconsin will send a 6-2 Republican delegation to Congress next year, although this maps gives Democrats some chance to pick up another district further down the line.
We are now up to 45 states with completed congressional maps, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene against court-drawn maps in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, which leaves those maps in place for 2022, at least (although we know that North Carolina will have a new map next cycle regardless). Florida, Louisiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, and Ohio remain unfinalized.