Steven Walters
The State of Politics

State Democratic Chair Hail’s Party’s ‘Triumph’

But election results -- and party's future -- more clouded than that.

By - Nov 21st, 2022 11:16 am
Ben Wikler and Sup. Felesia Martin speak to press. File photo by Graham Kilmer.

Ben Wikler and Sup. Felesia Martin speak to press. File photo by Graham Kilmer.

State Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler told MSNBC last week Republicans fell  “2,499 votes short” of getting the two-thirds majorities in both houses of the Legislature needed to override future vetoes by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

If you think that was a Wikler lament, think again. Instead, the nationally known party chair called Nov. 8 an “extraordinary night in a midterm election.”

Why? “Republicans have gerrymandered Wisconsin so badly that they could very well have gotten supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature.”

The Republicans’ failure “represents a triumph … when a basic freedom was being taken away from half the population,” Wikler added, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that gave states power to restrict abortions..

Democrats’ barely holding off a two-thirds GOP Legislature was second only to the re-election of Evers, who won by a 51%-to-48% margin — a “landslide” since  statewide elections are typically decided by less than 1 percentage point, Wikler said.

Evers was the first gubernatorial candidate from the same party as the President to win in 30 years, he noted. (32 years actually: Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson won reelection in 1990 when Republican George H.W. Bush was president.)

Voters also gave a second four-term to Democratic Atty Gen. Josh Kaul, who said he would not use state Justice Department resources to enforce the 1849 law banning abortions.

But Wisconsin Democrats failed to stop Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson from winning a third term. Johnson’s win came despite his questioning the election process, his effort to submit a false slate of electors to derail the Electoral College vote for President Joe Biden and his promise to only serve two terms. Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes lost to Johnson by about 26,400 votes, out of 2.6 million votes statewide.

Other things that put Wikler’s victory rhetoric into perspective:

-At 71, Evers is unlikely to run again in 2026. That could trigger a divisive fight over the party’s next candidate for governor; four well-known Democrats initially sought the nomination to oppose Johnson, for example.

-Democrats lost the 3rd Congressional District, which had been represented by Democrat Ron Kind since 1997. The Democratic candidate for state treasurer also lost.

-Republicans will have 22 seats in the state Senate – the first two-thirds majority for either party since 1977. It’s the fewest number of Democratic senators since 1969.

-Democrats lost three rural-area seats in the Assembly, giving them 35 seats in that 99-member House. The 64 Republicans will be only two seats away from a two-thirds majority.

-Democratic leadership in the Legislature has been a revolving door. Madison Democrat Sen. Melissa Agard, elected Senate Democratic leader last week, is the fourth senator in 10 years in that role; Assembly Democrats have had three leaders in six years.

Republicans held their own victory laps last week.

Johnson “received the most votes of any Republican candidate in a Wisconsin midterm election, became the first Wisconsin Republican senator elected to a third term since 1962 [and] will be the third-longest serving Republican senator in Wisconsin’s history by the end of his next term,” party leaders said.

After being elected to a record sixth term as Assembly speaker, Rep. Robin Vos promised to “defend conservative principles … during the next four years of divided government” and “hold the line against [Evers] when he attempts to enact his far-left policies.”

The 22 Senate Republicans re-elected Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu. “We’ll be passing legislation that is important to Wisconsin and hoping that Gov. Evers sees the wisdom in the bills we put before him,” LeMahieu told Wispolitics.

Wikler, meanwhile, has become known nationally for fundraising and organizing that led to Biden’s critical win over President Donald Trump in 2020. Elected in 2019, he was one of several state party chairs who pushed national leaders to focus more on state legislatures and organizing in rural areas.

Wikler’s glass-half-full optimism bubbled over in a New York Times interview. “Every single year, Democrats in Wisconsin win some races that they’re not supposed to win. You don’t know what forces will come together to make that happen.

“But if you are always organizing and investing everywhere, and cheering on the folks who are willing to put their names on the ballot, and do the work behind the scenes…then you’ll be ready when the opportunity comes.”

The next “opportunities” for Wikler, and Republicans, are the April election for the Wisconsin Supreme Court and laying the groundwork for the 2024 presidential election.

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

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