Milwaukee mayoral race could predict fall elections

MADISON, Wis. — Voters will head to the polls Tuesday, casting votes in local races like school and county board in the Madison area. But politically-interested people will also turn their eyes toward Milwaukee, where the race to replace now-Ambassador Tom Barrett will have an effect on the statewide races on the ballot.

“What’s happening in Milwaukee today is a dry run for November,” said Mordecai Lee, a professor of urban planning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a Milwaukee political expert.

“I think it’s really going to be interesting to see — what does it take for these grassroots efforts to really bring out what I guess you’d call an extraordinary vote, as opposed to a mediocre sort of run-of-the-mill voting turnout,” he added.

Lee said both the Democratic and Republican parties are using the Milwaukee mayoral election as a proxy for November and are contending with changing demographics of the city.

“Milwaukee has really changed over the last couple of decades,” he said. “We used to have a south side that was sort of white Reagan Democrats — they were pro-union, East-European ethnics — they were conservative on social issues and the Republicans gradually picked them up.”

He said Milwaukee has changed from the city that went for former Gov. Tommy Thompson when he ran for his fourth term in 1998. The transition has made Milwaukee bluer, heading to being on-par with Dane County, which has recently been the highest concentrated-Democratic county in the state.

“Milwaukee voters have extraordinary power to shape the future of our state and the future of our country in November,” said Ben Wikler, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. The state party has endorsed Cavalier Johnson, the city’s current acting mayor.

Johnson faces former Alder Bob Donovan in the April 5 election, who is favored by conservatives.

“The fact that Democrats want to hang their hat on a mayoral election in a city that has only voted 20% Republican is a testament to Donovan’s campaign and how pessimistic they must feel about the rest of the electoral landscape this year,” said Anna Kelly, a spokeswoman for the state Republican Party.

“He was very consistently a law and order candidate,” Lee said of Donovan. “So there’s a real question about [the election] have things gotten so bad in Milwaukee in terms of the citizens’ fear of crime, fear of reckless driving fear of the increases in gunshots and murders — is that enough to peel away from a more traditional Democratic coalition?”

Milwaukee is by and large a Democratic city, and Lee said he would be surprised by a Donovan win.

RELATED: See all of the local races we’re following on our Races and Results page