As Wisconsin approaches Tuesday’s midterm elections with competitive races for Governor and U.S. Senate, Milwaukee’s suburban communities could decide the state’s political balance for years to come.
The city’s outlying suburban Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties — collectively referred to as the “WOW” counties — are predominantly white counties that have historically been Republican strongholds in statewide elections.
The three counties voted for Republicans by margins upwards of 60% in every presidential election this century, according to state elections results archives.
However, Republicans have been winning less of a majority in recent elections.
President Joe Biden was able to shrink Republicans’ vote share in WOW counties during the 2020 election, according to Milwaukee Magazine. He received 37,000 more votes in WOW counties than 2016 Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and won the small city of Cedarburg.
However, the counties still voted decisively for Trump in 2020 and Sen. Ron Johnson in 2016, begging the question of whether recent records are a fluke or a sign of changing party influence in the state.
Still, the WOW counties’ narrowing margins encapsulate a national shift toward Democrats among suburban voters following Trump’s 2016 win.
Milwaukee suburbs like Mequon, Elm Grove and Brookfield that once consistently voted with Republicans elected Donald Trump by just single digits in 2020, according to state elections data.
The WOW counties are also diverging politically as younger, more diverse families from Milwaukee County move out to Waukesha and Ozaukee counties, according to University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Barry Burden. Trump won Washington County by 38% in 2020 but won Waukesha County by 21% and took Ozaukee by just 12%.
The Republican suburbs that shifted the most in the past two elections each have higher rates of college education, higher incomes, higher population density and close proximity to Milwaukee County, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Examples include Elm Grove, which has one of the highest median household incomes ($116,000) and the highest percentage of college graduates (67%) in the region, according to U.S. Census data. The village, which borders Milwaukee County, voted for Mitt Romney by 36% in 2012 but broke for Trump by just 3% in 2020.
Menomonee Falls, a village in Waukesha County, is similarly wealthy, educated and close to Milwaukee County. Like Elm Grove, the county voted overwhelmingly for Romney in 2012 but elected Trump by just 11% in 2020.
Changes in voter turnout coincide with the pattern in WOW counties as well. Wisconsin saw a record turnout in 2020, with over 260,000 more votes cast than any previous presidential election.
In the WOW counties, more than 41,000 additional ballots were cast in 2020 than 2016, a gain of nearly 11%, according to Milwaukee Magazine. This effect is bolstered by a sharp decrease in third-party, independent and write-in candidates, who previously accounted for 6.5% of all votes in WOW.
However, the counties’ recent trends don’t guarantee better Democratic margins in future statewide elections.
There are multiple uncertainties that may have played into suburban shifts in 2016 and 2020, including Donald Trump’s divisive personality and leadership style, that could have driven increased Democratic support.
Republican candidates also found increased support in Wisconsin’s rural areas during the 2016 and 2020 elections, especially in northern and western Wisconsin, according to the New York Times.
The wavering of Republicans’ rigid suburban voting bases, combined with rural gains, could produce a watershed moment for Republicans on Tuesday that hands them complete control of Wisconsin politics through a legislative supermajority or Tim Michels governorship.
Nevertheless, UW-Madison’s Barry Burden said a victory in a statewide race this election cycle “could be a small margin that defines outcomes” — just as some races were in 2016, 2018 and 2020.
Alex Tan is a staff writer for the Daily Cardinal specializing in state politics coverage. Follow him on Twitter at @dxvilsavocado.