When asked to comment about conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court justice David Prosser’s apparent razor-thin electoral loss on Tuesday, Gov. Scott Walker laid the blame directly at the feet of the state’s tempestuous little brother, the City of Madison. “You’ve got a world driven by Madison, and a world driven by everybody else out across the majority of the rest of the state of Wisconsin,” said Walker on Wednesday at a capitol press conference.
In a race decided by 204 votes (out of nearly 1.5 million cast), Prosser lost Madison’s home, Dane County, by a margin of 73 percent to 27 percent. Dane County is the second-largest county in the state, with a population of 491,357. Prosser’s challenger, Joanne Kloppenburg, received 133,513 votes in the county, almost 90 percent what Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett received last November. This kind of turnout for a spring primary is unprecedented in the state’s history.
It comes as no surprise that Dane County has by far the largest number of government employees in the state (79,343), outpacing Milwaukee County by 13,000 despite Milwaukee County’s having twice the population; 20.3 percent of Dane County’s workers are government employees, the fourth-highest percentage in the state (most of the counties ahead of Dane are low-population areas that house state universities). The statewide average for government workers as a percentage of total workforce is 11.8 percent. (See a full list of all counties here.)
As a byproduct of being home to so many government employees, Dane County has the state’s highest percentage of residents over the age of 25 with at least a bachelor’s degree (40.6 percent). Consequently, the county has the third-highest per capita personal income in the state at $43,617 (trailing only Ozaukee and Waukesha counties).
Madison’s caste of government employees recognized that in order to keep their generous pay and benefits coming, they had to turn out en masse to oppose Prosser, who they viewed as a stand-in for Walker. This self-interested intensity distorted Madison’s statewide influence — while Dane County is home to only 8.7 percent of the state’s population, the county’s voters made up 12.7 percent of the electorate in the Supreme Court race.
Consequently, Prosser lost Dane County by 85,000 votes. Some heavy-turnout wards of the City of Madison went to Kloppenburg by obscene 97 percent to 3 percent margins.
Democrats are trying to spin Kloppenburg’s tentative .013 percent win (recounts forthcoming) as a statewide rebuke of Governor Walker’s attempt to rein in public-sector-union bargaining power. Democratic state chair Mike Tate told Wispolitics.com the results showed Wisconsin had swung back to his side and “voters were rejecting Walker’s policies.”
Yet without the electoral bloodbath in Dane County, Prosser would have won Wisconsin by a comfortable 53.3 percent to 46.7 percent margin. The non-Dane County Prosser vote actually exceeds the 52.3 percent Walker received statewide in November. It wasn’t the state’s voters rejecting Walker’s agenda — it was Dane County’s government workers attempting to keep their paychecks intact.
In 1960, Democratic presidential candidate (and Missouri senator) Stuart Symington warned of the growth of public-sector-worker “rights.” “This government,” Symington said, “you’ve got to grab it! You run the government, or they run you, and there’s no middle ground.”
Right now, government employees in Madison run Wisconsin. It’s up to Scott Walker and legislative Republicans to wrest control back.
— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.