Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Just How Purple Is Wisconsin?

Election results going back three decades show an almost perfectly divided state.

By - Sep 26th, 2022 10:34 am
Purple skies over Kettle Moraine State Forest - Pike Lake Unit. Photo by Yinan Chen, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Purple skies over Kettle Moraine State Forest – Pike Lake Unit. Photo by Yinan Chen, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

National pollsters and pundits rate Wisconsin’s elections on Nov. 8 for U.S. Senate and governor as “toss-ups,” within the surveys’ margins of error or give a slight advantage to the bid by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers for a second term.

There is good reason for Wisconsin’s reputation as an election-year “purple” state, where top-of-the-ticket candidates from either party can win. Some voters — especially independents — take pride in living in a state not automatically painted red or blue.

A Pew Research Center poll estimated that 16% of those surveyed in Wisconsin identified as political independents, enough to swing any statewide election. The Pew report said 42% of those surveyed identified as Republicans, or lean Republican, and 42% identified as Democrats or lean Democrat.

The last three decades of elections suggests “Too Close to Call” could replace “Forward” as the state motto. Of 34 elections for statewide office since 1990, Democrats have won 18; Republicans, 16.

Republicans won six elections for governor since 1990: Tommy Thompson, three times and Scott Walker, also three times, including the 2012 recall vote Walker survived after his Act 10 changes ended collective bargaining for most public employees. But Democrat Jim Doyle won five statewide elections, two for governor and three as attorney general. And, since 2002, Republicans won three elections for attorney general; Democrats, two. Five Republicans and two Democrats won state treasurer elections over that same period.

One caveat: The Democrats’ 18 wins over three decades includes six by Democratic Secretary of State Doug La Follette, whose constitutional office has been stripped of all major functions by Republican governors and legislators.

At first glance presidential votes might look more lopsided: Democratic candidates for president have won seven times since 1992. Donald Trump was the only Republican winner over that period, in 2016.

But four of those elections were won by nail-biting margins. Democrat Al Gore won the state in 2000 by only 5,708 votes; Democrat John Kerry in 2004 by 11,384 votes; Trump in 2016 by 22,748 votes, and Democrat Joe Biden in 2020 by 20,600 votes. All four won with less than 1% of total votes statewide.

State Senate recalls have mostly resulted in the survival of incumbents in both parties: Ten Republican state senators who voted for Act 10 faced recall elections in 2011-12, and seven survived those historical votes. Republican senators voted out of office were Randy Hopper, of Oshkosh; Dan Kapanke, of LaCrosse, and Van Wanggaard, of Racine. But voters returned Wanggaard to the Senate in the November 2012 election.

Three Democratic state senators who faced recall votes over the controversies of 2011, which included their leaving the state to avoid voting on Act 10, survived.

How about Supreme Court elections? Although Wisconsin’s Constitution says elections for the state Supreme Court are non-partisan, both political parties have worked hard to elect specific candidates, especially in the last three elections. Democratic-endorsed Supreme Court candidates won in 2019 (Rebecca F. Dallet) and in 2020 (Jill Karofsky). But the Republican-backed Brian Hagedorn, who served as Walker’s chief counsel before the governor appointed him to the Court of Appeals in 2015, won in 2019.

UW-Madison Political Science Professor David Canon cited more examples of “purple” Wisconsin. “Wisconsin is one of only six states with a split U.S. Senate delegation,” Canon said. “Not only that, Senators (Republican Ron) Johnson and (Democrat Tammy) Baldwin are among the more ideological extremes.”

Between 1981 and 1993, Wisconsin also had one Republican senator (Bob Kasten) and one Democratic senator (Bill Proxmire and Herb Kohl).

The equal numbers of years Democrats and Republicans have served as governor is unusual, Canon noted. “With the exception of Tommy Thompson’s 14 years, we have always divided evenly between Democrat and Republican governors. In the 20 years since Thompson left office, the governorship has been held by Democrats and Republicans for 10 years each,” Canon said, adding:

“In the 36 years that preceded Thompson (1951-1987) Democrats and Republicans both held the governor’s office for 18 years each So we have a long tradition of being a purple state.”

All signs point to two more close elections on Nov. 8. The latest Marquette University Law School poll gave Johnson a 49% to 48% lead over his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, and Evers a 47% to 44% lead over his Republican opponent, Tim Michels.

Both leads were within the poll’s margin of error of 4.9%. Yes, too close to call.

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

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