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U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin doesn’t pretend that the recall elections on Aug. 9, 2011, were a big victory for Democrats, who narrowly lost their bid to flip partisan control of the Wisconsin state Senate.
But the day after the elections, the Madison Democrat, who is positioning herself for a Senate bid in 2012, told a news interviewer on ABC News’ Top Line webcast that the deck was stacked against the Democrats in "deeply red" districts.
"Think about the districts that these battles were fought in," Baldwin said. "These are Senate districts that were won by Republicans in 2008, which was a Democratic wave election. So we’re talking about the deepest red districts in the state."
She added: "If some of these battles had been fought out in slightly less red districts we would have seen a different thing. But this wasn’t a statewide election."
Baldwin’s observations fit the Democratic opinion that winning two of six seats held by incumbent Republican senators was significant progress. (Recalls also were held July 19, 2011 and Aug. 16, 2011, with three Democratic incumbents retaining their seats and leaving the chamber split 17-16 for the GOP).
But Baldwin went further by saying the recall turf was "the deepest" red districts in the state.
Let’s take a look at her take.
Baldwin is correct that all six districts were taken or held by Republican candidates in an abysmal GOP year (2008).
Indeed, the six districts, spread across the state, have long Republican traditions -- a fact pointed out by Baldwin’s office when we asked her to back up the claim.
One of the districts, represented by Sheila Harsdorf in northwestern Wisconsin, went 58 percent for Republican Scott Walker in the fall 2010 governor’s race. Walker won 57 percent in three of the other recall districts, and 54 percent in a fifth.
In the 2008 presidential race, in which Barack Obama swamped Republican John McCain in Wisconsin, the GOP vote in five of the six recall districts was about 5 percentage points higher than the GOP vote statewide. And in those same five districts in the 2010 governor’s race, that advantage was 4 percentage points. (These measures exclude one district that is an outlier; more on that later).
So by some important measures, there’s no doubt these are Republican-oriented districts.
However, Baldwin claimed these were not just Republican districts, but the "deepest" red ones.
We found convincing evidence otherwise in the number-crunching by Journal Sentinel Washington Bureau Chief Craig Gilbert, whose blog, The Wisconsin Voter, regularly digs into statistics-based election analysis.
There’s an elite tier of bedrock GOP Senate districts -- but arguably none of the six Baldwin referred to is in that tier, Gilbert’s reporting shows.
The deepest red districts are clustered in the suburban-rural ring around Milwaukee or farther out in southeastern Wisconsin. These take in areas of Ozaukee, Washington, Waukesha, Dodge and Walworth counties -- some of the most reliably conservative and Republican sections of the state.
One way to examine Senate districts is to look at McCain’s performance. He got only 42 percent statewide, but still managed to carry five districts in the Milwaukee area. That suggests those are even deeper red. And none of those McCain hot spots was among those where recalls took place.
In fact, Obama won all of the GOP-recall Senate districts. That would suggest a bit of a blue tint. Or that the districts have swung back and forth over time, depending on the year and the race.
Let’s look at the 2010 race between Walker and the Democratic candidate, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
Five of the recall districts, as we mentioned earlier, went handily for Walker -- giving him 54% to 58% of the vote.
But that’s not the whole story.
Those margins in the recall districts were right around the median victory margin in GOP-held Senate districts in Walker’s comfortable victory.
By contrast, that elite tier of GOP-dominated districts went for Walker by 62 percent to 74 percent, with districts represented by Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) and Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend), respectively, at the two ends of that scale.
Finally, there is the "outlier" district we mentioned, the one represented by Republican Dan Kapanke of La Crosse, who fell in the Aug. 9 recall to Democratic state Rep. Jennifer Shilling.
That district has voted less Republican than the state as a whole in two recent election years -- including a 61 percent showing by Barack Obama. And Democrats have broken through to represent that seat a couple times over the last half-century. Kapanke’s district split down the middle in the Walker-Barrett race.
So Baldwin’s statement is even more off as it relates to that district.
We could talk about the numbers until we’re, well, blue in the face.
But we’ll end it here:
Baldwin said on an ABC News political webcast that the battleground for the Aug. 9, 2011 state Senate recalls was the "deepest" Republican districts in the state.
There’s an element of truth here, in that four of the GOP recall districts were in the top third of GOP performance in the presidential contest and governor’s race. But upon closer inspection there is an elite tier of districts that seem a much better fit for the title "deepest red." And one of the GOP-held recall seats is really closer to a toss-up district.
We rate her statement Mostly False.
ABC News Top Line, video of Aug. 10, 2011 webcast
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Which state senators are vulnerable to recall? " March 3, 2011
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "The Democrats’ big challenge in Tuesday’s Wisconsin recalls: winning on GOP turf, " Aug. 8, 2011
Email from Bill Murat, chief of staff to Rep. Tammy Baldwin, Aug. 16, 2011
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