Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Primary Winners Rely on Certain Counties

Of state's 72 counties a small number provide majority of statewide vote.

By - May 9th, 2022 11:47 am
Looking west from the roof of Milwaukee City Hall. Photo taken September 23rd, 2012 by Erik Ljung.

Looking west from the roof of Milwaukee City Hall. Photo taken September 23rd, 2012 by Erik Ljung.

Three months from today, Republican and Democratic voters statewide will go to the polls in party primaries. Republicans will pick a Nov. 8 challenger to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers; Democrats will decide who should oppose Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson.

Both primary races will be hard fought and expensive. Voters on Aug. 9 can vote in one of those primaries, so they must decide whether to help Republicans pick a candidate for governor or help Democrats pick a U..S. Senate candidate.

Voters who try to cast ballots for candidates of both parties will have their ballot rejected. Only in the November general election can voters cast ballots for candidates from both parties.

Wisconsin has 72 counties but a much smaller number of them can be crucial to winning a primary, all the more so with so many candidates running. First, consider Wisconsin Republicans. The four best known and best organized candidates for governor are Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, construction executive Tim Michels, business consultant Kevin Nicholson and state Rep. Tim Ramthun.

To glean which counties have tallied the most votes for past Republican primary candidates, results from six statewide primaries were reviewed.

In five of those six primaries, between 50% and 56% of all statewide Republican votes came from only 10 counties. Waukesha Republicans cast the most votes for their party’s candidates in four of those primaries; Milwaukee County ranked first in the other two.

Those six primaries, and the 10 counties which tallied the most GOP votes in each, were:

-2018 Republican U.S. Senate primary, won by then-State Sen. Leah Vukmir (49%) over Nicholson (43%): Waukesha, Milwaukee, Washington, Dane, Brown, Racine, Outagamie, Ozaukee, Sheboygan and Marathon. Vukmir won Milwaukee County.

-2016 Republican presidential primary, where Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (48%) defeated the businessman who would become president, Donald Trump (35%): Waukesha, Milwaukee, Dane, Brown, Washington, Racine, Outagamie, Marathon, Ozaukee and Sheboygan. Cruz won Milwaukee County. Marathon County Republicans would later cast 29,966 votes for Trump, almost triple the total from the GOP presidential primary.

-2012 Republican U.S. Senate primary, won by former Gov. Tommy Thompson (34%) over Madison business executive Eric Hovde (31%), ex-Congressman Mark Neumann (23%) and former Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald (12%): Waukesha, Milwaukee, Dane, Brown, Washington, Racine, Outagamie, Ozaukee, Sheboygan and Fond du Lac. Thompson won Milwaukee County.

-2010 Republican primary for governor, won by former Gov Scott Walker (58%) over Neumann (39%): Waukesha, Milwaukee, Dane, Washington, Brown, Racine, Outagamie, Ozaukee, Sheboygan and Fond du Lac. Walker won Milwaukee County..

-2008 Republican presidential primary, won by U.S. Sen. John McCain (55%) over Mike Huckabee (37%) and Ron Paul (5%): Milwaukee, Waukesha, Dane, Brown, Racine, Washington, Outagamie, Winnebago, Sheboygan and Kenosha. McCain won Milwaukee County.

-1986 Republican primary for governor, won by Thompson (52%) over Dane County Executive Jonathan Barry (22%) and Milwaukee business executive George Watts (19%): Milwaukee, Waukesha, Dane, Fond du Lac, Marathon, Racine, Brown, Outagamie, Sheboygan and Ozaukee. Watts won Milwaukee County.

The two strongest counties for Wisconsin Democrats are Milwaukee and Dane, where 35% of all votes statewide for Democratic President Joe Biden were cast in the 2020 presidential election. Biden won that election by 20,600 votes, which was less than 0.1% of the 3.2 million votes cast statewide.

On Aug. 9, Wisconsin Democrats may choose from up to 10 candidates in the primary to pick a challenger for two-term Republican Sen. Ron Johnson.

April’s Marquette University Law School poll asked respondents about four of those 10 Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate: Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry and Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson.

The last statewide Democratic primary with 10 names on the ballot was the 2018 contest for the nomination for governor, won by Evers (42%) over Mahlon Mitchell (16%), state Sen. Kelda Roys (13%), then-state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (8%), Mike McCabe (7%), Matt Flynn (6%) and former Madison Mayor Paul Soglin (5%).

In the 2018 Democratic primary for governor, Milwaukee County Democrats cast 113,526 votes, or 21% of the statewide total; Dane County Democrats cast 105,039 votes, 19% of the statewide total. The eight counties with the next highest Democratic vote totals were Waukesha, Brown, Racine, Kenosha, Outagamie, Eau Claire, Marathon and Sheboygan. Mitchell won Milwaukee County.

The Aug. 9 primaries will also pick lieutenant governor candidates for both parties. On Nov.8, the winners will be on the same ticket as Evers and the Republican nominee for governor.

Steven Walters started covering the Capitol in 1988. Contact him at

If you think stories like this are important, become a member of Urban Milwaukee and help support real, independent journalism. Plus you get some cool added benefits.

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