Redistricting in Wisconsin is complete. Though additional court cases could change some of the political lines, experts say the 3rd Congressional District, which hugs the Mississippi River and includes La Crosse, Stevens Point and Eau Claire, is likely set for the decade.
Republicans are licking their lips.
Peter Cameron is managing editor of The Badger Project, a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit based in Madison.
Each decade, political districts for the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislature must be redrawn in every state after the Census.
After the Republican-controlled Wisconsin state Legislature and Democratic governor deadlocked on new maps last year, the issue went to the courts. Because the conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed with the Republican argument that the new political districts should change as little as possible from the Republican-drawn maps of the previous decade, the 3rd will be nearly identical in the coming decade.
The state Supreme Court gave Democrats a victory by selecting the congressional maps they drew, even if the court’s “least change” mandate constrained those maps.
“It looks to me that (Democrats) were very cautious with their 3rd District moves,” said Ryan Weichelt, a professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, who focuses on redistricting. “If they were trying to gerrymander it in some sort of way, they didn’t have much to work with.”
Democratic map drawers cut out Cadott, Sigel and Goetz in Chippewa County from the 3rd and slid them into the deep red 7th Congressional District to the north.
The small municipalities of Lone Rock, Buena Vista and Ithaca in Richland County in southwestern Wisconsin were pushed into the 3rd from the deep blue 2nd Congressional District that contains Madison and Dane County.
Nearby La Valle, Woodland, Ironton and Lime Ridge in Sauk County were also removed from the 2nd District and moved into the 3rd.
Even though the retiring Democrat Ron Kind of La Crosse has held the 3rd for over a quarter-century, the district is trending rightward as his party continues to fade in rural areas.
Former President Donald Trump won the 3rd in 2020, making it one of only a few districts in the country that split its votes for president and the U.S. House.
Kind faced his toughest challenge in years in that race, squeaking past the well-funded Republican, Derrick Van Orden, by less than 3 percentage points and about 10,000 votes.
With 2022 looking to be a Republican year, Van Orden, running again, is the favorite, said Dr. Joseph Heim, a professor emeritus of political science at UW-La Crosse. Van Orden could face one of four Democratic candidates: Rebecca Cooke, Deb McGrath, Mark Neumann or Brad Pfaff.
For Democrats, the political situation could have been worse.
When Republicans won full control of state government in 2010, they were able to draw the state’s political maps.
To make the 7th Congressional District in northern Wisconsin, which Democrat Dave Obey held for more than 40 years, more favorable to the GOP, they threw the blue college town of Stevens Point into the 3rd, then considered a safe seat for Democrats.
How times have changed.
Since then, Democrats have evaporated in rural areas, making the 7th a bright red district where they have virtually no chance and purpling the 3rd.
Republicans, no doubt regretting moving Stevens Point, tried to rectify that in their own congressional maps submitted to the state Supreme Court. That court, however, chose the Democrats’ congressional maps and the U.S. Supreme Court refused an emergency Republican request to throw them out.
In this case, the “least change” decision may have aided Democrats, who left Stevens Point in the 3rd, while Republicans tried to move it back to the 7th. Now the GOP is stuck with the district they drew in 2011.
The strong performance from Van Orden — who is being called out this week after reports of being fined for having a loaded gun at an Iowa airport recently — in 2020 gives Republicans a lot of hope for 2022 for flipping the district. But Weichelt wonders, “if Trump isn’t on the ballot, are those people going to turn out to vote?”
Looking beyond 2022, Heim said he suspects the 3rd “will be a swing district overall, depending on candidates. Someone who has run before, be it an incumbent or challenger, has an advantage. If you look at the historical patterns, incumbents here seem to stick around for decades.”
This story was funded in part by a grant from the La Crosse Community Foundation.