On April 6, progressives got a big boost when Jill Underly easily defeated Deb Kerr in the battle for Wisconsin’s superintendent of public instruction by a double-digit margin. The office, which oversees schools throughout the state, is nominally nonpartisan, but the state Democratic Party endorsed Underly while a host of conservative luminaries (including former Gov. Scott Walker) sided with Kerr.
It might be tempting to dismiss any tea leaves from this contest: It was a spring election in an off-year, turnout was relatively low, and both candidates were, technically, Democrats. But turnout was in fact up 30% compared to the last election for schools chief in 2017, and it would serve us well to look a little deeper into the nature of Underly’s 58-42 landslide win in a state that was one of the closest in the 2020 presidential election. So what happened?
1. Kerr’s strategy on education mimicked the gop’S 2021 RHETORIC ON SCHOOLS. it failed—badly
Republicans may try to dismiss the results as irrelevant, given that both candidates were nominally Democrats. Underly’s bonafides were never in question, but Kerr, despite her vocal support from Republicans, claimed to be a “pragmatic Democrat” who supported Joe Biden. Yet for the duration of the race, Kerr mimicked large parts of the GOP’s rhetoric on education. She was an early advocate, for instance, of the “return to school” mantra that has become a conservative staple in the time of COVID. She also took a very GOP-friendly approach to school vouchers.
Kerr made sure to target teachers’ unions, in this case specifically tying them to the “failure” of urban schools to reopen amid the pandemic, claiming that “the five largest school districts have not reopened because they have been strong-armed by the teachers’ unions. Arguments like these were amplified by conservative commentators, like Republican lobbyist Bill McCoshen (himself a possible candidate for governor), who called Underly “the teachers’ union candidate” and declared, “Deb Kerr is for the kids. Jill Underly is for the teachers.”
Republicans have long been convinced that Democrats would suffer for their caution in reopening schools, allowing them to ride voter antipathy toward teachers’ unions to political reward. That theory got a real-life test on April 6, and the result wasn’t even close: a 16-point margin for the “union candidate” in a traditional swing state that Biden carried by less than 1 point last year. And, given all we saw during the campaign, no one can say that the two candidates didn’t stake out contrasting positions on the issue that conservatives were convinced would be a winner for them, both now and in 2022.
2. The republican swoon in the suburbs continues unabated
The continued GOP decline in suburbia proved critical in Wisconsin in 2020, turning what had been a narrow win for Donald Trump four years earlier to a narrow victory for Biden last November. Particularly informative are the three suburban counties that surround Milwaukee: the so-called “WOW” counties (Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington).
In 2020, Trump won these three counties by roughly 97,000 votes while losing statewide by just over 20,600 votes. In 2016? Trump, in an equally narrow statewide win, carried this trio of counties by a greater raw vote margin—105,000 votes—despite the fact that this region accounted for nearly 48,000 fewer total votes overall.
And last week, it was even worse: Kerr’s 59-41 margin in the WOW counties was narrower than Trump’s 61-38 win last fall. By way of perspective, when Democratic Gov. Tony Evers (who was schools superintendent for many years before defeating Walker in 2018) thumped Republican Assemblyman Don Pridemore in 2013 by 22 points, Pridemore still won the WOW counties 62-38.
We’ve seen a similar phenomenon in Milwaukee County, too, which of course is home to the eponymous city but also includes a large swath of traditionally red suburbs, too. In that 2013 race, for instance, Evers won Milwaukee County 62-37. This year, Underly cranked that margin up to 69-31.
A very probable factor driving this suburban shift, as many analysts have argued over the years, is education. It turns out that Wisconsin’s three best-educated counties, when looking at the percentage of residents 25 and up who hold bachelor’s degrees or higher, include two of the WOW counties, Ozaukee and Waukesha. (The leader is Dane, home of the liberal bastion—and college town—of Madison.) They’ve all moved sharply at the presidential level over the last decade:
Shift in Presidential Preference, 2012-2020
Even as the state became more competitive for the GOP in the past two elections, these three highly educated counties moved to the Democrats, with the two traditionally red counties outside of Milwaukee shifting dramatically.
This movement offset the corresponding shift toward the GOP in the more rural parts of the state. For a Republican to win Wisconsin nowadays, they need conservative rural turnout, but they also need to crush the Democrats in what had been one of their last suburban redoubts. Yes, that suburban Milwaukee voter base is still red, but not nearly as uniformly as was the case even a decade ago, something that April 6 underscored.
3. Turnout STATEWIDE DID NOT FAVOR THE democratic PARTY
But did Republicans have a reason to turn out? After all, both candidates were self-identified Democrats! Maybe the red team just sat this one out?
The evidence is … not so much.
If conservative voters truly had no stake in the contest, we would have seen that reflected in the turnout variance between red and blue strongholds. But comparing this year’s election to last year’s presidential contest badly undermines any such argument.
Kerr, it turns out, won 23 counties, far fewer than Trump’s tally of 58. It’s fair to say that these nearly two dozen counties form the reddest core of the state, which should give us a read on how Republican-leaning voters felt about the importance of this race. In this cohort, turnout was 29.1% of what it was in 2020.
That may sound like a low figure, but that’s actually higher than turnout statewide, which was 27.7% of the presidential turnout. So in the counties Kerr won, voters participated in greater proportion than average. What’s more, turnout actually lagged a bit in the bluest part of the state: In the 22 counties where Underly did better than her statewide margin of victory, participation was 27.5% of the 2020 presidential turnout.
A historic indicator of Democratic success in Wisconsin is the percentage of the overall vote generated by the twin metropolitan blue behemoths of the state: Dane and Milwaukee Counties. In 2020, the two counties were responsible for 24.4% of the state’s votes. In this election, that share went up, but only just a bit, to 25.0%. This small increase cannot explain the difference between a 1-point squeaker and a double-digit wipeout.
Indeed, the best county for voter participation was actually smallish Taylor County in northern Wisconsin, which saw turnout at a robust 44.7% of 2020’s turnout. Trump not only annihilated Biden 72-25 there, it was Kerr’s third-best county in the state, giving her a 57-43 win.
Meanwhile, two of the counties with the weakest turnout were Milwaukee County and tiny Menominee County, a predominantly Native American county that’s deep blue (82-17 Biden), and where turnout was only 10% of the presidential turnout, by far the lowest in the state.
So does this mean that Republicans shouldn’t be worried about turnout? Quite the contrary. Something has to account for the fact that Underly, running as a vocal progressive, more than held her own in counties where Biden did comparatively poorly. The most glaring example came in Underly’s home county of Lafayette, which Trump won 56-43 but Underly carried 59-41. But there were other places, like Marinette County, which is geographically distinct from Underly’s home base, that was deep red in 2020 (67-32 Trump!) yet narrowly went for Underly (51-49).
Election observers have long wondered whether the bond that developed between Donald Trump and a particular subset of otherwise hard-to-motivate voters would not be transferable to the Republican Party without Trump there to drive the train. Kerr’s failure to effectively use the GOP’s stock lines on COVID and education to win over rural voters who had strongly supported Trump could just be a simple failure of a candidate with real liabilities (her general election campaign, after all, began with a total debacle).
But it could also mean, as we saw in relatively weak performances in some Trumpian strongholds from 2017-2019, that Trump is in fact a unique driver of voter sentiment whose departure from office might simply mean these disaffected voters will choose to recess into the woodwork. Only time will tell if that’s the case, but if it is the case, it’s quite possible Republicans struck a temporary bargain that cost them countless college-educated suburban voters for very little of value in return.