The Ultra-Nationalized Wisconsin State Legislative Elections of 2020

This year’s races for seats in the Wisconsin Legislature featured a healthy number of hotly contested races and millions of dollars in spending, but electoral data suggest that their outcomes may have been determined by a factor completely beyond the control of the candidates: the presidential election.

To examine the effect of the top of the ticket on Wisconsin’s legislative races, I calculated the presidential vote in all 132 of Wisconsin’s senate and assembly districts using unofficial ward-level data from the state election commission. (Note: the results described below could change a bit when the state releases the final numbers).

Based on the unofficial results, it appears that President Trump won 61 of Wisconsin’s 99 assembly districts despite narrowly losing the state as a whole. This outcome is similar to the results of the 2016 election, when President Trump won 64 assembly districts while also narrowly winning the state.

Results for the 2020 assembly races tracked extremely closely with the district-level presidential vote, as the figure below shows. Of the 99 assembly races, only three featured outcomes that were inconsistent with the district-level presidential election results. In two of these districts, incumbent Democrats (Beth Meyers in the northern Wisconsin-based 74th district and Steve Doyle in the La Crosse-based 94th district) defeated Republican challengers by small margins in Trump-friendly territory. In the other district (the 24th in suburban Milwaukee), incumbent Republican Dan Knodl defeated Democratic challenger Emily Seigrist in a rematch from 2018; at the same time as Knodl won his re-election battle, President-Elect Biden carried the district with 52% of the two-party vote.

A closer examination of the results shows that a significant number of assembly districts that were likely drawn to advantage Republicans in 2011 have become more Democrat-friendly over time, but not quite enough that Democrats have been able to win seats in them. Eight assembly districts currently represented by Republicans featured pro-Trump margins of around 6% or more in 2016 but less than 4% this year; Republican candidates (almost all of them incumbents) won the assembly races in these districts, usually exceeding Trump’s district-level performance by a few percentage points.

Results for the 2020 state senate races were even more closely tied to the 2020 presidential election than were the assembly race results. Not a single partisan outcome among the contested senate races differed from the district-level presidential election outcome, though in one district (the suburban 8th) Trump appears to have very narrowly prevailed over Biden while incumbent Republican Sen. Alberta Darling defeated challenger Neal Plotkin by a somewhat larger margin. In the western Wisconsin-based 32nd district, Democrat Brad Pfaff eked out a victory over Republican Dan Kapanke at the same time as Biden carried the district with 53% of the two-party vote.

Overall, these results indicate that Wisconsin’s political geography has changed relatively little over the past several years, allowing the legislative district lines that Republicans drew in 2011 to continue to reap benefits for GOP candidates. Of course, the 2020 election will be the last one held under current district boundaries, and time will tell if the lines to be drawn next year will lead to a change in the partisan composition of the state legislature.

Adam Myers is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Providence College