In 2016, Democrats across the country were in shock. When political prognosticators would go over the battleground map in 2016, they would usually point to Florida, Ohio, Arizona, North Carolina, and more states to the right of Wisconsin. Meanwhile, the Badger State would join Michigan and Pennsylvania as being in the Leans Democratic column.
Then, Wisconsin dropped and went to the Republican Party, from the Presidency to a Senate race seen by most as a Democratic pickup, to Republicans dominating down the ballot.
The key regions
When fingers started to be pointed, it was typically pointed to Republican Donald Trump’s boost in raw vote totals and margins in rural Wisconsin. One region looked at vigorously was the driftless area, a group of rural counties along the Iowa-Wisconsin border. Trump’s coalition in the area was new, with the Madison suburbs being swapped out for the rural farm country.
While this is true, it also discounts the rest of the state. Even if Trump had this boon in support in the driftless region, he relied on other parts of the state just as much to pull him ahead. In 2020, when Trump would still pull respectable numbers in the rural areas of Wisconsin, two areas helped cement his narrow defeat.
The first was the BOW counties (Brown, Outagamie, Winnebago), a group of three northern Wisconsin counties with mid-to-larger cities surrounded by blood-red exurbs. The other, perhaps more consequential, was because of the WOW counties (Waukesha, Ozaukee, Washington), a group of three large suburban counties outside of Milwaukee. The WOW counties are the bedrock of Republican strength in Wisconsin, and they cast many votes.
A changing region
Moderate swings in the BOW and WOW counties have canceled out many of Trump’s blue-collar gains. Unlike rural Wisconsin for Republicans, there is still sizeable ground to gain in these areas for Democrats. While the BOW Counties have different trends in different parts of the area, the WOW is universally trending leftwards.
April 6th’s election for a seat on the Wisconsin State Supreme Court rattled conservatives due to their loss and how they lost. Republicans’ concerns did come true; Democrats turned out in full force, with some solidly Democratic wards in Madison peaking at nearly 90% of Wisconsin’s 2022 general elections turnout. However, Republicans did not anticipate the amount of bleeding they suffered in the WOW.
Without the strength of the WOW counties, a statewide victory for a Republican will become much more difficult, if not impossible. Unless there are rapid right-wing trends elsewhere in the state, Democrats could be in to gain a permanent edge in Wisconsin elections.
What are the WOW counties?
In 2008, Obama won Wisconsin by nearly 15 points, and nearly the whole state was painted blue. Areas that Trump won in a landslide voted for Obama, sometimes comfortably in rural, blue-collar areas. One little portion stuck out like a sore thumb, however – the WOW counties.
McCain carried Waukesha County 62-37%, Ozaukee 60-39%, and Washington 64-36%. In the 2023 spring election, Conservative candidate and former State Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly won Waukesha 58-42%, Ozaukee 52-48%, and Washington 66-34%.
While the three counties are similar, they do have slight differences. Waukesha is the powerhouse, with the population size being much greater than the other two counties. The county also has a notable county seat, Waukesha. This has created a slight rift in the county, as Waukesha is starting to become a battleground. The areas closest to the Milwaukee County line are also promising for Democrats.
Washington has seen the least amount of change in the WOW counties. Washington is the least dense of the three counties, and many in the northern half of Washington may not even consider themselves living in a suburb. The area has uniformly stayed with Republicans, with Kelly surpassing McCain’s numbers in the county.
Considering how the night went for McCain, these performances were also not considered weak, but they were not powerhouse numbers either. Donald Trump was considered poison to many suburbanites, but the WOW stuck by him, surpassing McCain’s numbers in all but Ozaukee. In contrast, the once GOP-friendly suburbs of Philadelphia that would commonly give double-digit Republican victories now see Republicans not even attain 40% in most areas. This trend radiates throughout the Midwest and the country, but the WOW has largely been immune to this change.
Why are the WOW counties historically red?
One reason the WOW counties have continued being stubbornly Republican is that they have yet to face the rate of demographic trends most other suburbs has. While many people of color have migrated to the suburbs, the WOW counties still have a citizen voting age population of 89% white as of the latest census (per DRA). This compares to the collar counties of Philadelphia (around 75% white CVAP), and the Chicago collar counties (less than 65% white CVAP). While suburban white voters tend to vote more Democratic than rural whites, they still generally lean to the right.
The trend of suburbs diversifying will likely continue and be an albatross around Republicans’ necks. This trend has been particularly evident in the Atlanta suburbs, where the state tends to vote along racially polarized lines. If the Atlanta suburbs were as white as they were 30 years ago, a strong argument could be made that the Atlanta metro could still be a competitive area politically, and Georgia would likely be heavily Republican-leaning.
Another issue for Wisconsin Republicans is that the suburban voters of the WOW counties are the bedrock of the Wisconsin Republican Party. If the three WOW counties were removed from the 2016 Presidential election, results would go from a narrow Trump victory to a three-point Clinton victory. The WOW counties being erased also would hamper the electoral successes of every statewide Republican in the past decade.
Crucial Waukesha county
There is a running joke from election enthusiasts about “crucial Waukesha County” and “waiting on Waukesha County.” The joke stems from 2011 Supreme Court election. At the time, the ideological balance of the state supreme court was 4-3 Conservative. Conservative Justice David Prosser Jr. held on to his seat by the skin of his teeth, and it would take 12 more years for liberals to gain control of the court.
Prosser’s victory can be attributed to a factor of things, from a respectable performance in Milwaukee to doing well in the BOW. However, Prosser was ultimately saved by Waukesha County, which propelled him to first when the county fully reported.
If Waukesha County and the WOW counties had not existed, the election would not have been close. The election was unique as it was primarily seen as a referendum on Scott Walker’s anti-union legislation he championed early in his first term. This could explain why the WOW counties voted even more Republican than usual and why the union-friendly driftless area went so strongly for the liberal nominee JoAnne Kloppenberg. Nevertheless, this map would never be replicated today, and it gave the WOW much attention to political circles.
This has helped cause the WOW to be used as a critical ingredient for the congressional and state legislative lines that have been decried as Republican gerrymanders. Multiple legislative districts have portions of heavily Democratic areas that are then roped in to attach to parts of the WOW.
A controversial aspect of the last decade’s Congressional map was the first Congressional district formerly represented by Paul Ryan. The seat took in a swath of Waukesha County which inflated the Republican edge of the seat. Ryan would of still likely been victorious without Waukesha, but it was a notable example.
A more recent example of this can be the April 6th special election in Wisconsin’s 8th State Senate District. The seat takes in the now left-leaning northern Milwaukee suburbs before snaking around to take in swaths of ruby-red turf. There are other redrawings of the seat that would have likely included a Democratic win, including a seat going further north up Ozaukee from Milwaukee.
If the WOW area continues its trend, this could weaken the Republican-drawn maps in Wisconsin and enable Democrats to have an easier chance of capturing majorities. Nevertheless, this would likely only happen if there was some legal intervention to make the median legislative seat more balanced to the state.
It is becoming apparent that while the WOW region is progressing leftward at a slower pace than many other midwestern suburbs, they are becoming friendlier turf for Democrats.
How can the WOW continue to “wow” Republicans?
With the recent Supreme Court election painting an unpleasant trend, many Republicans are nervous. However, it should be noted that even though Kelly got meager numbers compared to other Republicans, Kelly still decisively won in the WOW counties. The WOW’s trends in margins have been satisfactory for the GOP until recently, and most of the fear is on the continued ebbing of Republican support rather than the current margins. Protasiewicz’s win would have likely been narrower if the WOW voted in the margins they used to provide.
Compared to Kelly’s 2020 loss – which was by an almost an identical margin – he improved in much of rural and exurban Wisconsin, but the shift in the WOW alone gave him another double-digit loss. The change was negligible for the particular race, but in a closer election, the WOW shifting, and by how much could be crucial.