Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

9 Election Takeaways

Tom Barrett might be in trouble, Chris Abele definitely is. So is Puente.

By - Feb 17th, 2016 12:02 pm
Chris Larson vs Chris Abele

Chris Larson vs Chris Abele

Does Bob Donovan have a chance against Tom Barrett? Is Chris Larson now the frontrunner for county executive? Did “signgate” hurt Nik Kovac? Will any incumbent aldermen lose their jobs? Here are the night’s biggest takeaways.

1. Chris Abele Could Lose

Easily the night’s biggest surprise. Sure we knew Abele was vulnerable, but who thought he’d lose the primary? Larson’s narrow victory, by only 708 votes, makes his campaign suddenly look very alive, despite a series of missteps. The primary performance should greatly help Larson’s fundraising efforts. He was outspent 20-to-1 in the primary by Abele.

To avoid awkward political confrontation over the next six weeks, just tell your friends you intend to vote for Chris. Also, don’t open your mailbox. It’s going to be loaded with campaign mailers.

Fun fact: When Larson successfully challenged incumbent Democratic state Sen. Jeff Plale in the partisan primary in 2010, Larson’s wife, Jessica Brumm-Larson, couldn’t make the election night party at Studio Lounge in Bay View. She was busy with an internship for her PhD in Psychology in Omaha, Nebraska. The reverse was true last night, Larson was stuck in Madison performing his duties as a state senator, while his wife held down the fort, answering questions from the media and posing for photos.

2. Larson Outpolled Barrett In The City

City of Milwaukee residents cast 31,272 votes for Larson last night and just 30,039 votes for Barrett. Larson thumped Abele in the city, getting 31,272 votes (49.64 percent) to Abele’s 25,321 (40.20 percent).

3. The April Election Suddenly Looks Insane

I predicted this was going to be a crazy election going in, but few seemed convinced, given that Barrett and even Abele looked like shoo-ins for reelection. This April we’ll have Bernie Sanders versus Hillary Clinton, which has become a very hot contest, and Donald Trump versus Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson and more, which is a truly insane primary. Rebecca Bradley versus JoAnne Kloppenburg for the state Supreme Court looks like a toss-up. Barrett versus Donovan will be a blast. Abele versus Larson is a dead heat. Seven hotly contested aldermanic races. All in the same election? Let’s get ready to rumble!

4. Is Mayor Barrett Vulnerable?

Despite winning the primary fairly easily, last night wasn’t quite the result the Barrett campaign wanted.  The incumbent mayor needed more than 50 percent of the vote to make it clear this was no race. Instead he got 46 percent, which will help Donovan’s money-raising efforts.

With a higher turnout in the general election, who benefits? Donovan supporters likely came out in droves knowing the southside alderman needed to beat Joe Davis to stay in the race, but the general election will bring out the less impassioned, who seem more likely to go for Barrett. And who do Davis’ 12,060 votes (18.51 percent) go to? Polls show strong support in black community for Barrett, suggesting they lean toward him.

The key question is: can Donovan’s strong performance generate political donations from outside the city? Without that, Barrett’s huge advantage in campaign crush cannot be overcome.

5. Puente Is In Trouble

Robert Puente, the least visible member of the Milwaukee Common Council, won his six-way primary with 43 percent of the vote. But anything less than 50 percent is bad news for an incumbent. Chantia Lewis and outgoing county supervisor Martin Weddle were in a virtual dead heat (splitting 39 percent of the vote), with Lewis ultimately prevailing with 864 votes over Weddle’s 799. If Weddle voters back Lewis (something I’m expecting), Puente could be thrown out.

6. Kovac and Bauman Cruise

The two most vocal streetcar supporters crushed their competition in the primary. Nik Kovac received 77 percent of the votes and will face Shannan Hayden (19 percent) in the general election. Robert Bauman received 58 percent and will face Monique Kelly (22 percent). Bauman, a longtime transit supporter, has his face fittingly plastered in advertisements on the side of bus stop shelters across his district. Kovac doesn’t appear to be doing much advertising, and has yard signs lining the East Side and Riverwest. Those yard signs were the source of controversy when Kovac was accused of taking down an opponent’s sign, but that doesn’t appear to have hurt him at the polls.

Also worth noting: Milele Coggs, sixth district alderwoman and another streetcar supporter, pulled in 68 percent of the votes in her district. She’ll face Tory Lowe in the general election, who received 17 percent of the votes.

7. Third Time Is The Charm For Chevy Johnson

In an open race for the second aldermanic district seat currently held by Davis, Chevy Johnson received a commanding 38 percent of the votes. Johnson, who most recently worked in the mayor’s office, has run twice before for the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors. Johnson will face longtime Davis aide Sherman Morton (who got 23 percent of the vote) in the general election.

8. Is Joe Davis’ Political Career Over?

Davis, unlike Donovan, decided not to run for re-election for his council seat at the same time he ran for mayor. His third place finish in the mayoral primary leaves him scheduled for unemployment come May. But political insiders are speculating that won’t last for long. The alderman has perfected the art form of traveling on the city’s dime to conferences, and has developed quite the Rolodex of contacts from those trips. Davis has also developed a close relationship with U.S. Senator Ron Johnson. The senator even scheduled a Washington D.C.-based fundraiser for Davis on January 22nd.

Even if Davis does land on his feet with Johnson, the senior senator from Wisconsin faces a daunting fall election against Russ Feingold. My guess: Davis ultimately ends up working as a consultant to one of the many organizations he’s traveled with.

9. 79 Percent Of Voters Stayed Home

Only 20.61 percent of registered voters bothered to vote in the spring primary. If you voted, please accept my digital high five. If you didn’t vote, don’t complain next time you think the mayor did something stupid or your alderman doesn’t call you back when your garbage doesn’t get picked up.

How can we raise turnout? One perk might be getting to join a “do not mail or call list,” but only if you’ve voted in the past five elections.

The shamefully low percentage aside, nearly double the total number of votes were cast in this primary (65,641) versus the last cycle (35,714, February 21st, 2012).

Mark your calendar’s now: polls open at 7 a.m. on April 5th.

29 thoughts on “Eyes on Milwaukee: 9 Election Takeaways”

  1. Ryan N says:

    Doesn’t look good for Donovan based on numbers. Davis and Methu supporters are likely to go to Barrett for the most part, plus the Dem nomination fight will bring out a lot, and none of them will vote for Donovan. Still looking Barrett 60-65%.

  2. Frank Galvan says:

    Wouldn’t any responsible report have included an analysis of the political future of Ira Robbins?

  3. beer baron says:

    Who would’ve thought the endorsement of Joseph Thomas Klein could make the difference in the spring election? Will he bck Chris or Chris?

  4. Vincent Hanna says:

    Barrett/Donovan, Bradley/Kloppenburg, and Abele/Larson are going to be some nasty races. I don’t expect many of the candidates to play nice. Regarding the mayoral race, will Davis endorse someone? Will those who voted for him stay home in April?

    Similar question with Joe Donald. Will he endorse someone (and who)? He got 65,000 votes and Bradley got about 9,000 more than Kloppenburg, so it’ll be interesting to see who his voters look to (and if he endorses someone).

    Finally, there aren’t too many votes to fight for in the county exec race. How will that influence the race?

    Should be a lot of fireworks and negative ads/campaigning over the next 6 or so weeks.

  5. PaulS says:

    Nearly 600,000 people in the City, nearly a million in the County, 5.7 million in the state, and these are the best candidates we can muster?

    At least Joe Klein had some *ideas*.

  6. Ryan N says:

    Looks like Davis is going to endorse Donovan who share pretty much no views outside of the streetcar. At least endorsements don’t mean much in the end.

  7. Alfonso says:

    The teachers union will be hitting the pavement hard for Larson since they never really trusted Able. They won’t back Barrett after his 2010 attempt at “taking over” MPS, but the heart of their attack is focused now on getting Able out and a pro-META county exec in. Larson will be the likely winner if people continue to let MTEA use racial scare tactics to convince black and brown voters that Able is out to get them. For example at the recent listening session for the new Opportunity Schools District, Dr. Means who Able chose as the commissioner per state law, was called “naive” and “out of touch with what it means to be a poor black man growing up in Milwaukee” by the very white vice president of the MTEA, Amy Mizialko.

    Sadly a lot of the outcomes of the April 5th elections will come down to racial issues and as a person of color it is scary to see how far politicians will go to scare minority groups into voting one way or another.

  8. M says:

    It’s not that surprising that Davis, who is tight with Sen. Ron Johnson, would endorse Donovan. But I doubt it will hold much sway with Davis supporters. Of course, neither have much of a message beyond “Streetcar bad, more cops good.” Oh, and Davis thinks reviving African World Festival will magically cure many chronic problems include MKE’s black “brain drain.”

    Donovan was especially clueless at at 53206 forum at North Division High. Said he would spend a lot of time “walking around all the neighborhoods of MKE,” like he does in his district. Right.

    So Barrett will likely get more Davis votes.

    Alfonso, Means is already in hot water with Darling, Kooyenga et al, for saying he wants to help bolster and better fund MPS rather than launching new schools as that new-district law mandates. This could be a real hornet’s nest for Means. What would “success” look like and how long before that could be assessed?

  9. Vincent Hanna says:

    “I’m finding out that he certainly has a passion for the area’s greatest needs, and that is specifically, the African-American community,” Davis said.

    Seriously? Does anyone really believe that? Did you find that out this morning? Davis must really hate Barrett.

  10. Ryan N says:

    It’s amusing on social media that Donovan supporters thinks he has it in the bag with the Davis endorsement because “if they didn’t vote for Barrett in the primary they certainly won’t in the general”. Yes, because all of the north side black community is going to flock to Donovan, who hates them and blames them for the cities problems and wants to flood that side of the city with cops.

    The Democratic Primary will help Barrett greatly. All the many Bernie (young folks) and Hillary supporters won’t vote for Donovan. He’s done, can’t wait until April to get this shit show over with and put Bathroom Bob sycophants in their place.

  11. Observer says:

    Dan Sebring coasted in his County Supervisor primary. He can make Bob Donovan look like Noam Chomsky.

  12. Vincent Hanna says:

    Is it possible that people voted for Donovan and Larson, and that’s why both did better than expected? That despite their differences, people fed up with status quo guys like Barrett and Abele actually voted for two guys who are political opposites?

  13. Dave says:

    There is no way Donovan supporters voted for Larson and vice versa in significant numbers. Maybe a few blue collar union members…that’d be about it.

  14. M says:

    Vincent, I suppose someone could analyze the data by precinct to see how the votes match up.

    However, both Davis and Donovan ran very thin campaigns with little detail about what they would do beyond stopping the streetcar and adding cops. They ran on their personalities and name recognition as much as anything else. And Donovan gets votes by going on Charlie Sykes et al.

    Both also are part of the status-quo of policy decisions, having been on the CC for a long time. Other candidates running for CC seem more likely to endorse Barrett than Donovan and that may have more impact on race than Davis endorsing Donovan.

  15. Vincent Hanna says:

    You never know Dave. I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the idea.

    “the Vermont senator’s campaign has noted some of these voters are wavering between Sanders and Trump.

    Sanders’ team has even prepared a script as part of their literature for volunteers who encounter voters who say both Trump and Sanders’ “outsider” status appeals to them.”

  16. Vincent Hanna says:

    If there are people out there who like Trump and Sanders, there are people out there who could vote for Larson and Donovan.

  17. Dave says:

    I live on the “outskirts” of Bay View so there are lots of Donovan signs and number of Larson signs in the general neighborhood. I’ve yet to see them coexist in the same yard. Hardly scientific but between that, what I hear on am radio (don’t get much reception in the office so when I’m bored, I listen to 620 as long as I can tolerate it (usually 10 seconds to 5 minutes)) and see on facebook browsing, Larson and Donovan do not share many voters at all.

  18. M says:

    It’s a stretch to call Donovan an “outsider.” Maybe an outlier on the CC for how reactionary and conservative he is. He’s a grumpy old white guy who can turn on the ol’ Irish charm and get a pothole fixed. Barrett’s another old white guy who can turn on the charm but he’s sunny and gets along with others. Neither offers much in the way of vision but Barrett’s no loose cannon like Donovan–or Trump.

  19. Vincent Hanna says:

    I’m not saying I agree that Donovan is an outsider (and I detest Bathroom Bob). I don’t think he is and I don’t think Sanders is for that matter. But they get their followers to believe that, and these are strange times politically. I don’t think yard signs and Facebook are much proof of anything. Not that I have any proof either. Just saying it’s possible in these crazy times we live in.

  20. b says:

    “nearly double the total number of votes were cast in this primary (65,641) versus the last cycle (35,714, February 21st, 2012).” While the total vote is tragic, the increase is an indicator of discontent among the masses (as shown by the popularity of Sander and Trump). The more discontent, the better the result will be because good things will happen if EVERYONE votes..

  21. M says:

    Vincent: I agree we are indeed living in crazy times and your other assessments.

    Donovan’s aldermanic race may be even more interesting. Justin Bielinski is politically the opposite of Donovan and is heavily engaging with the district, which has become highly diverse (reportedly 75% nonwhite). The primary had super-low turnout but what happens in the general with presumably higher turnout?

  22. Observer says:

    M, I once was in Bob Donovan’s Aldermanic district and his responsiveness was something to be emulated. (Actually props to his aide Patricia Doherty) That does not mean he’s Mayoral material.

  23. AG says:

    Donovan is like Trump in that he hits hard on several highly contentious issues that people are generally getting fed up with. While Trump jumps on immigration, Donovan uses that strategy for crime and schools. Even if Donovan is overall worse for the city, people want to see better results on those two very key issues and they seem to be overlooking a lot of other things that they may feel are less important (including the fact that he’s not really mayoral material in terms of character).

  24. Dave says:

    Perhaps common council members like Donovan and Zielinski are so responsive because they don’t spend their time researching issues and putting together well thought out legislation. It’s much easier to cobble together a sound bite or a pandering proposal in 5 minutes that will make the news and then get back to the work of filling pothole requests and following up on nuisance complaints thus locking up votes for the next election even though you are a terrible law maker.

  25. Ryan N says:

    James Methu just endorsed Barrett. Again likely won’t do much but he looks like he could be a sensible black mayor in the future. Just needs more experience, should become an alderman first though.

  26. M says:


    Every alder should meaningfully respond to constituents (though some reportedly do not; that’s been the word on Wade). And no, that does not indicate mayoral material, esp. in a complex city like MKE. I’ve also heard that Donovan has not done much else to advance his district in other ways, or the city at large. We need pols who take their jobs seriously and are not phoning it in for a healthy payday.

    BTW, I heard Joe Davis was off to South Africa yesterday. Anyone know the scoop on that?

  27. capper says:

    I find it amusing that you thought the Larson win was a big surprise. Kind of shows how out of touch you are. It also shows the mistake of only listening to one camp of people.

  28. Ryan N says:

    @capper Everyone I know, even the Larson supporters I know were pretty shocked. It was a big surprise, except maybe in the Larson/county board lair.

  29. Vincent Hanna says:

    If my memory serves, a month or two ago the Larson campaign released a poll showing the candidate down like 10-12 points and put a very positive spin on that deficit, declaring that he was doing better than expected. Considering he actually won, only hindsight allows someone to belittle others for believing the Larson win was a surprise.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us