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Democrats’ sole redistricting victory: Paul Ryan’s old congressional district in southeastern Wisconsin

State Supreme Court chose governor’s congressional maps, which might make the 1st District competitive.

BY PETER CAMERON, The Badger Project

While the latest redistricting process was an overwhelming success for Republicans and a huge loss for Democrats and competitive elections in general, Democrats did secure one victory: the 1st Congressional District.

The 1st, which stretches from Janesville to Kenosha, Racine and Lake Michigan, swung from favoring Republicans by 14 percentage points to favoring them by just 6, according to the political website FiveThirtyEight.

Ryan Weichelt, a professor of geography at UW-Eau Claire who specializes in redistricting

That change in the 1st was “the biggest surprise” in this round of Wisconsin’s redistricting, said Ryan Weichelt, a professor of geography at UW-Eau Claire who specializes in redistricting.

“(Democrats in the 1st) have a long way to go,” he added, “but it’s certainly better than it was.”

The reconfigured 1st is the result of redistricting prompted by the decennial Census. In Wisconsin, which is almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, the Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic governor failed to agree on a new map.

The redistricting battle landed in court, where 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.

But the state Supreme Court — with right-leaning swing Justice Brian Hagedorn joining the liberal minority — approved a twist: justices chose the congressional maps Democrats drew under the “least change” guidelines. The 1st was the one district they were able to tweak enough to make it competitive.

To give the 1st a little more purple tint, Democrats performed a series of moves that included scooping the left-leaning city of Beloit out of the deep blue 2nd Congressional District, which contains Madison and Dane County, and plopping it in the 1st.

Philip Chen, an assistant professor of political science at Beloit College

They also pulled half the college town of Whitewater that sits in Walworth County from the heavily Republican 5th district to the north and placed it in the 1st.

In addition, Democrats took all portions of dark red Waukesha County, including Mukwonago and Muskego, that had previously been in the 1st and pushed them into the 5th, keeping Waukesha County intact. Democrats also plucked East Troy in Walworth County out of the 1st and slid it into the 5th.

And in Milwaukee County, the Democratic-leaning southern suburbs of St. Francis, Cudahy and South Milwaukee were cut from the dark blue 4th District that is mostly made up of the city of Milwaukee, and pasted to the 1st.

Even with those positive movements for Democrats, 2022 looks to be promising for Republicans, said Philip Chen, an assistant professor of political science at Beloit College.

“This year I don’t expect the 1st to be a Democratic pickup,” Chen said. “It’s still a Republican-leaning district.”

But at some point in the next decade, the changes might shake up a district Paul Ryan represented for 20 years, and one Republicans have held since 1995.

“We might even see a Democratic pickup in the first,” Chen said.

The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.

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