Last spring, Supreme Court challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg got close to beating conservative incumbent David Prosser, boosted by outrage over Gov. Scott Walker's policies. But after a controversial recount Prosser eked out a win. The clincher? Waukesha County.
State Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison) believes the high, heavily conservative voter turnout in the southeastern Wisconsin county was too much for Kloppenburg to overcome.
"The conservative margin of vote won by David Prosser in Waukesha County was the difference in that election," says Pocan. Of the 125,182 votes cast, more than 92,000 went to Prosser. "A less than overwhelming margin like that gives the victory to JoAnne."
The Waukesha effect was also evident in the 2010 governor's race. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Craig Gilbert, "the GOP performance in Waukesha was unprecedented. Walker's raw vote margins topped those of Tommy Thompson in the 1990s, even though those elections were statewide blowouts for Thompson, and this election was competitive and relatively close."
Waukesha County has turned more rightward in recent decades. In 1976, Republican candidate Gerald Ford received only 57% of the Waukesha vote when he lost to Jimmy Carter. In 2008 John McCain received 62% - a significant margin, given Barack Obama's landslide win.
Another sign of a harder turn right for Waukesha County can be seen in its votes for Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, who has served on the Supreme Court since 1976. In 1999, Abrahamson, considered a liberal by Waukesha County standards, won the county by more than 1,000 votes. In 2009 Abrahamson received only 40% of the vote against Randy Koshnick, a conservative who believes, among other things, in creationism over evolution.
With a higher eligible voter turnout than almost every other county in Wisconsin, and a higher percentage of conservative voters, Waukesha County has become the GOP's answer to Dane County, which has long been a crucial voting bloc for Democrats.
"The evidence is really strong that the counterpoint to Dane County is the large margins run up by Waukesha County," says Charles Franklin, a UW-Madison political science professor and polling expert.
Both counties are fairly affluent, fairly white and have high employment rates, adds Franklin. "We're kind of mirror images of each other."
And when it comes to elections, Franklin confirms, "Waukesha is critical for adding to the Republican balance statewide."
Assembly Speaker and Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Jeff Fitzgerald testified to the power of this constituency when he crowed in an Oct. 24 news release that he had landed "several key endorsements from the Republican stronghold of Waukesha County" in his bid for senate. The news release noted that in the 2010 elections, Waukesha County accounted for 12% of both Gov. Scott Walker's and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson's statewide vote totals and one out of every eight votes cast for Prosser.
Much of the credit for this influence goes to Waukesha County GOP chairman Don Taylor, according to former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen.
The county's "outsized role in state politics is due to [Taylor's] ability to collect and tend to a greater conservative style of politics," says Jensen, a Waukesha County native and Taylor protégé. Jensen says Taylor has excelled at identifying, grooming, electing and reelecting conservative politicians.
It approaches a messianic mission for Taylor, with the endgame being "lower taxes, greater liberty and less government." Waukesha, says Taylor, is a "conservative Garden of Eden."
Don Taylor came up as an active leader of the Waukesha County Young Republicans while in high school and college in the 1950s and '60s, serving as chair in 1964. In 1967, he lobbied then California Gov. Ronald Reagan to run for president, launching a relationship with Reagan that would lead Taylor to chair Reagan's presidential campaign in Wisconsin in 1980.
In 1976, Taylor, whose father was founder of the Waukesha State Bank, urged the state GOP to adopt a more conservative platform. But "lower taxes, less government and more liberty" didn't go over as well then. He upset many Eisenhower moderates in the party by supporting James Sensenbrenner in a contentious election against moderate Susan Engeleiter, then an Assembly representative from Brookfield, which Sensenbrenner won. In 1977, Taylor was considered so radical a conservative in Waukesha County he could not even receive delegate status to the state GOP Convention.
Taylor says he ran for the county chairmanship in 1978 because he was intent on moving his party in a "new conservative" direction.
He took office with two goals. The first was to successfully unseat Democrat Lynn Adelman, who had been representing Waukesha in the state Assembly since 1977. His broader mission, says Taylor, was to elect "all Republicans to state and congressional offices representing Waukesha County." Goal number two was to get them reelected. Within 10 years, the only state legislative or congressional seat in Waukesha County Taylor had not flipped to Republican was Adelman's.
In 1983, the state GOP discontinued its longstanding practice of holding fundraising dinners, a major source of revenue for county committees. To fill the gap, Taylor started the "Chairman's Circle" of 100 donors, contributing $100 each. The Chairman's Circle raised $20,000 the first year, says Taylor, and was the seed for the Waukesha County Conduit Fund.
A bill authorizing such a conduit fund was passed by the state Legislature in 1985. The bill was authored by Rep. John Young, a Republican from Brookfield, and cosponsored by other Waukesha County GOP lawmakers including Rep. Lolita Schneiders of Menomonee Falls and Engeleiter, by then a state senator.
Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign calls conduit funds "PACs in disguise." "The donation comes to the candidate in the form of a single check from the special interest [in this case, the Waukesha County GOP], but is reported on campaign databases as multiple individual contributions."
McCabe points out that under conduit laws, a special interest conduit has unlimited fundraising ability; it is the individual that is subject to the contribution limit. This makes conduits far more powerful than any PAC.
"Their influence really took off in the early '90s when Scott Jensen raised enormous amounts of money through conduits," says McCabe.
The Waukesha County Republican conduit fund is so successful that most significant state GOP campaigns maintain a staffed office in Waukesha County to be close to Don Taylor and the fund, says Jensen. Recent statewide candidates with staffed campaign headquarters in Waukesha included U.S. Senate candidates Russ Darrow and Ron Johnson; gubernatorial candidate Mark Neumann; John McCain and every other GOP presidential candidate going back to Ronald Reagan.
Scott Jensen met Don Taylor when he was asked to start a College Republicans chapter at Carroll College in Waukesha. It was the mid-'80s, after Jensen had graduated from Drake University in Iowa.
Jensen says Taylor championed his political career after confirming that they shared a similar political ideology. "He acted more or less behind the scenes to help my political career move forward," says Jensen.
Jensen says that Taylor rarely got deep into policy matters. Rather, his influence was in fundraising and party organization.
Other state GOP lawmakers who have been "tended" by Taylor include Sen. Leah Vukmir, former Sen. and current Waukesha County Executive Dan Vrakas, former Sen. and Lt. Gov. Margaret Farrow, and Sen. Rich Zipperer, says Jensen. Fitting the Taylor free-market mold, Zipperer recently introduced a bill that would drastically reduce the Department of Revenue's authority to audit, assess, penalize and collect taxes from corporations.
Waukesha County also sent ultra-conservative lawmakers Paul Farrow and Chris Kapenga to the state Assembly in 2010.
These lawmakers have emerged from what are commonly called "safe districts" - newly drawn districts that were a product of the state Legislature's 2001 redistricting process. Though the Senate at the time was controlled by Democrats, the Assembly, under Jensen, drew lines in the city of Waukesha to minimize the effect of the primarily Hispanic population that was emerging, says Pocan. The districts were drawn to split it in half, with the southern district including the very conservative areas of Genesee and Mukwonago. This diluted the emerging Hispanic demographic, which grew from 8% of the city in 2000 to 12% in 2010.
Jensen was first elected to the Assembly in a 1992 special election for the 32nd Assembly District; he served as Assembly speaker from 1995 to 2002.
Jensen was a powerful legislator and speaker who conducted "the Legislature like an orchestra," says Pocan. He had all but announced he would run for governor in 2002, but then the caucus scandal broke, revealing widespread partisan campaigning by Democrats and Republicans on state time.
Jensen's political career came to an abrupt end in 2006 when he was initially convicted of three felonies and a misdemeanor for misconduct in public office. The felonies were overturned, and in 2010 Jensen agreed to a plea deal to pay a $5,000 civil forfeiture and reimburse the state for legal fees. He is barred from seeking public office again due to the misdemeanor involving a violation of public trust.
Though no longer an elected official, Jensen still holds considerable sway through his work with the American Federation for Children and other groups that promote the establishment of private charter schools in Wisconsin.
Since 2010 the American Federation for Children has spent more than $2.6 million in Wisconsin on Walker's governor's race and the recall elections.
"[Jensen] is more powerful now than he was as speaker," says state Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton).
Jensen disagrees: "If I was speaker, I would have gotten everything I wanted [for charter school advocacy groups]."
Through the 1950s, Waukesha was still called "Cow County" because of its high concentration of dairy farms. But an increase in manufacturing in neighboring Milwaukee County started to change the mix. Allis Chalmers, Briggs & Stratton, and Falk Corporation supplied well-paying union jobs that allowed its workers to live middle-class lives in eastern Waukesha County and commute to work.
The county's reputation as a bedroom community continued to grow during the 1960s and '70s, when Milwaukee still had a strong manufacturing base. During the tech boom of the 1980s and '90s, Waukesha established its own economic infrastructure, with such companies as GE Healthcare creating a demand for white-collar workers. The I-94 corridor through Waukesha now is home to a string of financial and tech service companies.
From 2000 to 2010 Waukesha County, according to U.S. Census figures, grew faster than the state, with an 8.1% growth in population, compared to 6% growth for the state. The county is still overwhelmingly white - 93.3% compared to 86% for the state.
Education levels are also comparatively high: 94.7% are high school graduates (89% state); 38.4% hold a bachelor's degree or higher (25.5% state). The median household income is $72,900 ($49,900 state), with only 4.9% of the population living below the poverty line (12.4% state).
Home ownership, according to the 2010 census, is also high. Almost 78% of Waukesha County residents own their own home. The median home value is $256,400. The state home ownership rate is 69.9%, and median home value is $166,100.
This high rate of home ownership is not entirely a coincidence.
When the suburban communities of Waukesha County were being carved out of farmland, no municipal sanitary sewer system existed. This created the necessity for larger, half-acre lots to support on-site wastewater and sewer needs.
Costs to develop property in Waukesha County were higher than in Wauwatosa, for instance, which was part of the Milwaukee County sewerage district. The higher development costs were passed on to the buyers, which meant higher-priced homes.
Even though most of Waukesha County's municipalities now have municipal water systems, half-acre lot-size minimums are written into most of their zoning codes. This creates a prohibitive environment for low-income housing development.
The relative affluence of Waukesha County helps support a more conservative electorate, says University of Wisconsin political science professor Barry Burden.
None of the primary groups affected by current high unemployment rates - African American and Latino workers, those without college degrees, and manufacturing-based workers - are heavily represented in Waukesha County, notes Burden.
If voters in Waukesha County don't perceive widespread societal problems, they see problems as rooted in individual choices, he says. Therefore, he adds, "They don't accept government as the solution to an individual problem."
This narrow vision of the world is what Madison Mayor Paul Soglin calls "economic delusion." Voters will "reward performance that benefits their interest," he says in an interview.
But Waukesha County, as already noted, is not immune to larger demographic forces. And there have been some signs that Democrats hold some appeal to its voters.
Democrat Larry Nelson, for instance, was elected mayor of Waukesha in 2006. But he was defeated in 2010 by Jeff Scrima, who rode the anti-establishment wave that swept the country. Scrima portrayed himself as a political outsider and promised to be "a full-time mayor for half pay."
GOP legislators have redrawn district lines to favor Republicans in their latest redistricting efforts, hoping to blunt any emerging Democratic electorate. The city of Waukesha remains divided, with the southern Hispanic-heavy area drawn into a district that includes very conservative Mukwonago, which bears no resemblance to the city's south side, either socially or economically.
But there are signs of a liberal backlash. Gov. Walker's far-right policies have fomented a "coming out" of progressives who've been living quietly among their conservative neighbors.
In announcing her new blog, Waukesha Wonk, Lisa Mux argued that Scott Walker was turning Waukesha "blue."
"In the parking lots of local schools, 'Recall Walker' bumper stickers adorn the cars of many a teacher," Mux wrote on Oct. 7. "Attendance at the Waukesha Democratic meetings has soared. Waukesha progressives are coming out of the proverbial closet like never before. Our motivation to recall Walker has united us, friendships have formed, and the first ever Drinking Liberally Waukesha is official."
Drinking Liberally is a nationwide network of progressives who get together to socialize and discuss local issues.
Mary Magnuson, a resident of the Waukesha County city of Brookfield, says she's experienced her own political awakening since Walker took office. Though never active in politics, she has helped spearhead a recent move to staff polling locations with citizen exit pollsters to verify vote tallies. The mishandling of ballots by Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus, most recently in the Supreme Court race, has raised questions there and elsewhere about election integrity. Magnuson says other liberals in Brookfield have become similarly engaged this past year.
"People never used to pay attention, unless it was about property taxes," she says.
Magnuson believes Walker's attack on public education is a particularly strong motivator for her neighbors. "Good schools are a high priority for people," she says. "Many of us moved here because of the quality of public schools."
Her mayor, Steve Ponto, agrees. A moderate Republican, Ponto has been critical of the new state funding formulas passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature as part of Walker's budget. He says that they are hurting the Elmbrook school district and that Brookfield taxpayers would rather "pay a little higher taxes than see school quality suffer." But, he adds, "the current law doesn't allow us to make up that difference in the tax levy."
Political science professor Burden says the recall election, were it to happen, would be a good indicator of whether enthusiasm for Walker has waned even in this most conservative of areas. But he does not see any great shifts in the near future.
"I would be surprised if a progressive movement gets much traction in Waukesha County," says Burden. "They might be able to make some noise, as conservatives sometimes do in Dane County, but broad-based support is going to be difficult to attract and sustain."