15 Election Winners and Losers
Beyond the ballots, which insiders, groups and trends were the winners and losers in this election?
The last time there was no incumbent in the race for mayor, in 2004, there was a turnout of 136,000 voters. Yesterday’s election had less than 62,000 votes, below even the 2016 race, pitting incumbent Tom Barrett, whom everyone knew would win, against Joe Davis and Bob Donovan, and which still attracted 66,000 voters. City election officials were expecting at least 100,000 voters. This had to be a huge disappointment to the challengers to Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson, who won even more easily than expected. Beyond that were many other winners and losers:
Winner: An anti-crime stand. Amid a record homicide rate and a surge in stolen cars and reckless driving, this was an election made for Donovan. Even after moving out of the city after retiring as a “tough on crime” alderman and coming back only to run for mayor, he managed to take second, though with 7,000 fewer votes than in 2016, which doesn’t bode well for him in the general election. And Johnson made crime and reckless driving a central focus of his campaign.
Winner: TV and radio. In a fast turnaround election like this, you still can’t beat TV and radio ads, and Johnson’s campaign and third-party dark-money spending together got him nearly $400,000 worth of those ads, about two-thirds of all such ads in the mayoral primary. They delivered.
Loser: Social Media. Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic had a respectable amount of money, but decided to devote it to becoming omnipresent on social media. It didn’t work. Though she was also seen as most liberal and more concerned about underlying causes of crime. Wrong stand for this election.
Winner: David Clarke. Photos of “America’s Sheriff” in his cowboy hat, which Clarke probably wears to bed, were featured in Donovan’s literature. Is it possible that actually helped Donovan? Apparently.
Winner: Chris Abele. Clarke’s old sparring partner, former County Executive Abele, backed Johnson and is presumably the guy behind the dark money group that spent $121,000 on the acting mayor’s campaign. This comes after his money helped David Crowley win as Milwaukee County Executive in 2020. That’s some serious behind-the-scenes influence in local politics.
Loser: Labor and Progressives: Citizens Action, Peoples Action, Voces de la Frontera, the MATC faculty union and Teamsters Local 200 and 344 all backed Dimitrijevic. Yet she too finished far behind Donovan.
Winner: Kevin Nicholson. The GOP candidate for governor publicly endorsed Donovan, which might win him some votes against Rebecca Kleefisch in the August Republican primary among the city’s small percentage of conservatives. Kleefisch, according to Donovan, privately endorsed his campaign over the phone, but Nicholson showed up for a rally at Serb Hall.
Losers: Police and Fire Unions. Yes, their champion Bob Donovan took second, but his diminished total vote reflects that fact that so many police and fire fighters have left town since the residency requirement was ended. It seems fitting that their favorite candidate abandoned the city after finishing his term as alderman. No doubt Donovan will return to the suburbs after his loss in April.
Winner: Milwaukee Works: The a 501(c)(4) that periodically polls on local policy issues and candidates had the most accurate poll, predicting exactly the order of finish by all the candidates. Dan Adams, who runs the organization, bet me a cup of coffee I was wrong to predict Dimitrijevic would take second. Dan, do you take cream or sugar?
Winner Ryan Clancy: The ambitious county supervisor is trying to build a power base and backed supervisor candidates Eric Rorholm in District 3 and Juan Miguel Martinez in District 12. Rorholm’s stance on cutting the county sheriff’s budget echoed Clancy’s stance. Both Rorholm and Martinez made it through the primary
Loser: The Democratic Process. Less than half the votes that were cast in the last uncontested race for mayor? That’s dreadful and surely a new low for such races. The confusion about absentee ballot boxes probably didn’t help and yes, this was a fast turnaround election. But I suspect the decline of the media plays a role in this. Whatever the reasons, this was not a good day for democracy.
Winner: 53206. The Milwaukee ZIP Code that has become the poster child for poverty and mass incarceration is now becoming known as the neighborhood that gave this city a future generation of leaders: Crowley, Milwaukee County board chair Marcelia Nicholson and Johnson all grew up in 53206, and now the Common Council President looks like a shoo-in to become the city’s first Black elected mayor. All three know well how tough this city’s poverty can be, but they radiate hope about its future. That’s inspiring.
Political Contributions Tracker
Displaying political contributions between people mentioned in this story. Learn more.
- February 13, 2017 - Cavalier Johnson received $834 from Chris Abele
- June 30, 2016 - David Crowley received $1,000 from Chris Abele
- August 13, 2015 - Cavalier Johnson received $25 from David Crowley
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3 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: 15 Election Winners and Losers”
Winner: the people of Milwaukee once again being spared the threat of Lena Taylor being their mayor. A complete and total bonehead and a disgrace. Hopefully out of the senate soon.
As per usual, very interesting and insightful commentary.
Appreciate this wrap up especially the ending on a positive note about our city. Thanks.