Why you should care

Because 2016 showed how crucial Wisconsin can be.

Who Cares: OZY's 2020 election coverage focuses on who votes and why. Who Cares: OZY's 2020 election coverage focuses on who votes and why.

The odds were against Wisconsin’s Republicans when two appeals court judges faced off for a 10-year term on the state’s Supreme Court this past April. Democrats — who would have flipped the court’s balance to a 4-3 liberal majority if they won — initially outspent Republicans by a 14-to-1 margin. Private polls showed the Republican, Brian Hagedorn, losing by double digits. A report surfaced that Hagedorn had started a school that considered banning teachers or students in same-sex relationships — causing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Wisconsin Realtors Association to sit out.  

But using advanced voter data technology, the Koch-backed grass-roots conservative group Americans for Prosperity saw that half a million voters would back Hagedorn; they had just never voted in a state Supreme Court race before. Eric Bott, Wisconsin state director for the group, says they went from needing to reach millions to “we literally just need to connect with 250,000 people” to win. His mostly volunteer network sent 1.5 million pieces of targeted mail and made 750,000 voter contacts. Hagedorn won by 6,000 votes — in an election that had the second-highest turnout since 2000 for a nonpartisan Wisconsin race. 

Wisconsin Supreme Court

Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Brian Hagedorn during a debate with opponent Lisa Neubauer at the Wisconsin State Bar Center in Madison.

Source Josh Hart/AP

It’s an approach Republicans want to replicate over the next year. Hillary Clinton’s failure to visit Wisconsin (and her eventual loss to Donald Trump by 17,000 votes in the swing state) is often cited as proof of how the absence of enthusiasm from the multiracial Obama coalition cost Democrats the 2016 election there. Yet, in parts of Wisconsin, Republicans stayed home too. And as the Badger State dominates the spotlight in the 2020 election, conservatives are investing key resources to make sure they find their own disappearing voters to keep up with renewed liberal interest. 

Consider the Democratic stronghold of Milwaukee, which the national party has selected for its nominating convention next year. An exclusive OZY nationwide analysis of county-by-county turnout figures with Washington-based data firm 0ptimus shows that Milwaukee County had the single biggest drop-off in the country of raw votes from 2012 to 2016 — more than 50,000. The nonvoters were mostly disaffected Democrats. Clinton won 43,000 fewer Milwaukee voters than Barack Obama in 2012. But Donald Trump also earned 28,000 fewer voters here than his party’s previous nominee, Mitt Romney, as third-party and write-in voters surged.

When you put a neighbor in front of a neighbor, it dials down the animosity.

Mark Jefferson, executive director, Wisconsin Republican Party

Aware of those concerns, the GOP is staffing up, and has double the strength on the ground a year out compared with the last election, says Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party. He says they are modeling after the Obama campaign group Organizing for Action, which helped local people organize within their own communities, reaching out and organizing neighborhood teams. “When you put a neighbor in front of a neighbor, it dials down the animosity and rhetoric people are seeing on television,” Jefferson says.

The Wisconsin GOP is also covering more ground. In the past, campaigns have focused on major conservative population centers — the Milwaukee suburbs namely. But with Trump holding rallies in rural places like Green Bay, Eau Claire and Mosinee, the party has realized unexpected gains. “He packs 5,000, 10,000 people into an airport or an arena, and his team gets all those names, and we have leads … we can build community teams,” Jefferson says. 

Still, Republicans will count on suburban conservatives returning to the fold after being turned off by Trump’s scandals and rhetoric in 2016. “The perspective from those individuals was that Hillary was not an ideologue, she’s a manager and is not going to fundamentally alter key aspects of American business or health care,” says Dale Kooyenga, a state representative whose district includes Waukesha County. The potential Democratic nominees are much more progressive this time around, he says, and so, in turn, could galvanize Republican voters to turn up in a bid to stop them. Meanwhile, those voters have seen that despite his flaws, Trump governs like a conservative. “They’ve seen the Supreme Court picks, they’ve seen the regulatory state decrease,” Kooyenga says. 

To that, Democratic state Rep. Jimmy Anderson says the case against Trump is stronger than ever after his three years in office. “We got to taste the flavor of the gum,” Anderson says. Voters backing Trump “felt it was a way to shake up the system,” he says, but “what they ended up getting was incompetence on top of racism on top of cruelty.”

Already knowing who their nominee is, Republicans can share email lists and coordinate tactics with the Trump campaign. The Republican National Committee has streamlined efforts, sharing its texting tech and voting databases and building out WinRed, the new Republican fundraising platform created in response to the pro-liberal ActBlue. Republicans feel additionally confident because they’ve been able to win in swing states where Democrats have invested. That includes winning the last two states that hosted Democratic conventions in a presidential year, flipping Pennsylvania in 2016 and North Carolina in 2012. Jefferson feels the Milwaukee convention can help them galvanize counter-support. “We’re going for the trifecta,” he says.

Talk to Democrats about what’s changed, and they point to last year’s gubernatorial election: They unseated Gov. Scott Walker with record-setting midterm turnout in 2018. But speak with Republicans and they will point to the lesser-noticed Wisconsin Supreme Court race they won this year, defying polls by focusing on turning out just the right number of previously apathetic conservative voters in a state of more than 5 million people.  

That type of targeting will make all the difference in 2020, particularly in a race that will be won in the margins. A year out, Republicans are confident they are doing the groundwork to avoid a 2016 Milwaukee-like disaster of their own.

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