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Even as Democrats celebrated their statewide electoral successes in the Nov. 6, 2012 elections, the party faced the sobering reality that Republicans had regained complete control of the state Capitol.
In the party’s statewide radio address a few weeks later, Assistant Minority Leader Sandy Pasch (D-Shorewood), scoffed at the idea that voters had validated the Republicans’ agenda.
"The people of our state sent a clear message in this election – they are sick and tired of partisan politics trumping the best interests of middle-class families," Pasch said.
She added: "And Republicans cannot claim a mandate for continuing their extreme agenda, as Assembly Democratic candidates actually received 200,000 more votes statewide."
The claim about a Democratic popular-vote advantage jumped out at us.
After all, Republicans won 60 of the 99 Assembly seats on Election Day, giving them a 60-39 advantage next year, a margin nearly identical to the previous two years. (In the state Senate, control flipped from the Democrats to the GOP).
Is it possible Assembly Democratic Party candidates ran up a vote advantage while losing more than 60 percent of the races?
Pasch’s office said she got the figure from a Nov. 13, 2012 opinion piece authored by State Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate and published in the Journal Sentinel. Tate said when the final vote tallies were confirmed, the margin would be "close to 200,000" in favor of Democrats.
Losing the popular vote while winning a big majority would be unusual.
In the 2010 Assembly races, for example, the GOP took control of the Assembly and Senate before temporarily losing the Senate after recall elections in 2011.
That year state GOP Assembly candidates ran up a 263,000 vote edge over their Democratic counterparts. Republicans won 57% of the votes, collectively, in the Assembly races across the state.
The two elections before that, in 2008 and 2006, saw the opposite: Democrats picked up seats. And in doing so, they ran up a huge majority of the collective vote in Assembly races, more than 60 percent in both cases, according to research by Scot Ross, executive director of the liberal political group One Wisconsin Now.
So what about 2012?
We crunched district-by-district numbers from the official results reported on the state Government Accountability Board website.
And we found the historical trend flipped on its head.
We counted a 174,000-vote edge for Democrats in the 99 races in the final tally.
Statewide the Democrats won 53 percent of the 2.7 million votes cast in those local Assembly races, compared to 46 percent for Republicans, we found. The rest went to independents and other parties.
Democrats blame the new redistricting plan, pushed through by Republicans for packing Democratic officeholders into supermajority districts and giving the GOP a majority of redrawn, conservative-leaning areas. Pasch called it a "gerry-mandate."
A Republican political strategist, Mark Graul, owner of Arena Strategy Group, said he thinks redistricting was a factor but that in some districts Republicans simply outperformed their Democratic Party counterparts.
In this item, we’re not evaluating Pasch’s claim that "Republicans cannot claim a mandate" in light of the Democratic vote majority. Her assertion struck us, and experts we consulted, as an opinion statement.
But here are a few additional facts that help explain the vote totals and put the results in context.
Behind the popular vote figures that Democrats cite are some stark figures that favor the GOP. If you look just at contested Assembly races featuring both a Republican and a Democrat, the GOP won 56 of 74 matchups. That’s 76 percent.
In the 74 contested races, Republican outpolled Democrats by 155,000 votes. The overall Democratic edge in all races traces to the party’s 329,000 vote edge in races where only one party or another was on the ballot.
As you might guess from those figures, Democrats dominated the uncontested races, including in Pasch’s district in Milwaukee and suburban Shorewood.
Republicans wouldn’t or couldn’t field a candidate in a whopping 21 districts (most in vote-rich Milwaukee and Dane Counties), while Democrats fielded a contender in all but four. That’s a big switch from two years earlier, in 2010, when it was Democrats who sat out more races.
In fielding so many candidates, Democrats might have been hoping to goose turnout in other races, said Mordecai Lee, a University of Wisconsin Milwaukee political scientist elected five times as a Democrat in the state Assembly and Senate in the 1970s and 1980s.
Pasch, citing Democratic Party research based on unofficial and preliminary vote data, claimed that "Assembly Democratic candidates actually received 200,000 more votes statewide" despite Republicans winning more than 60 percent of the seats.
The final, certified election results showed a 174,000 edge for Democrats, despite the fact they won only 39 seats.
We think that her statement rates a Mostly True.
Democratic Party of Wisconsin, audio of weekly radio address, by Rep. Sandra Pasch, Nov. 29, 2012
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, opinion piece, "State Dems got more votes; no GOP mandate," Mike Tate, chairman, Democratic Party of Wisconsin, Nov. 13, 2012
Interview with Mark Graul, owner, Arena Strategy Group, Nov. 30, 2012
Interview with Fred Ludwig, aide, State Rep. Sandra Pasch, Nov. 30, 2012
Interview with Mordecai Lee, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, professor of governmental affairs, Nov. 30, 2012
Interview with Nathan Conrad, communications director, Republican Party of Wisconsin, Nov. 30, 2012
Rep. Sandra Pasch, press release, "Democratic weekly radio address: "Put Wisconsin families first i next state budget," Nov. 29, 2012
Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, Fall 2012 General Election Results, accessed Nov. 30, 2012
WisconsinWatch.org, "Wisconsin vote split was closer than results," Nov. 18, 2012
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