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Election 2020 to be remembered for record spending, mixed results

The dust hasn’t quite settled on Election Day 2020. As of Nov. 9, President Trump had not conceded, even though Joe Biden was projected to win the popular vote by millions and the Electoral College vote by a safe margin.

So a recount remained possible.

But recounts historically don’t move that many votes in Wisconsin, in part because of the good work of local clerks across the state. A recount in 2016 didn’t change much.

Based on that assumption, it can be said that this unique election likely will be remembered as a record high-turnout affair (at least by one measure) with record absentee ballots and record spending that resulted in Wisconsin reverting to its blue tilt during presidential years.

But the blue wave didn’t materialize, and Republicans maintained control of the congressional delegation, the state Senate and the Assembly. However, the GOP didn’t gain the veto-proof majority it had sought in the state Legislature, preserving Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ extensive veto power.

Highlights, as of Nov. 9: Former Vice President Joe Biden, according to unofficial results from the Associated Press, garnered 20,540 votes more than Trump in Wisconsin. That’s about the margin Trump beat Hillary Clinton by in 2016, becoming the first Republican presidential candidate to win the state since Ronald Reagan in 1984. In the process, Biden and Democrats flipped two counties — Sauk and Door — while upping margins and vote totals in Dane and Milwaukee counties. Trump boosted Republican turnout, so the red counties generally got redder while the blue counties generally got bluer.

The pro-Biden side vastly outspent the pro-Trump side on ads this year — $85.1 million to $46.4 million, according to Advertising Analytics. That combined figure of $131.5 million dwarfs what was spent in 2016. Candidates and outside groups combined to spend less than $19 million for the 2016 presidential race.

It was the fourth time in the past 20 years that Wisconsin’s electoral votes were decided by fewer than 25,000 votes. Four years ago, Trump won Wisconsin by 22,748 votes over Hillary Clinton. Before that, Democrat Al Gore won by just 5,708 votes in 2000, while Democrat John Kerry took the state by 11,384 in 2004.

According to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, Wisconsin’s voters cast just under 3.3 million votes for president, the most ever in Wisconsin, smashing the record of a little under 3.1 million in 2012. The unofficial turnout percentage of Wisconsin’s 4.5 million voting-age population was 72.7 percent — not quite a record. The commission said the 2004 presidential election remains the high-water mark in terms of percentage turnout, 73.2 percent, because the voting-age population was significantly lower.

Democrats prevented Republicans from reaching two-thirds majorities in either house of the Legislature, but they fell short of big gains in the Assembly. Still, Republicans picked up two seats in the Senate, while Democrats knocked off just two Assembly GOP incumbents despite big spending advantages in their favor.

Former DATCP Secretary Brad Pfaff edged former GOP state Sen. Dan Kapanke in the La Crosse area. But Green Bay attorney Eric Wimberger beat De Pere Ald. Jonathon Hansen in the Green Bayarea seat represented by the retiring Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay. And GOP Rep. Rob Stafsholt defeated Sen. Patty Schachtner, D-Somerset. It puts Republicans at a 21-12 majority in the Senate, the largest majority for either caucus since the 1970s.

Both Democratic pickups in the Assembly were suburban Milwaukee seats. In the 13th Assembly District, Democrat Sara Rodriguez knocked off Rep. Rob Hutton, RBrookfi eld, according to unofficial returns. In the 23rd Assembly District, Democrat Deb Andraca beat Mequon Republican Rep. Jim Ott.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, declared victory after he faced an onslaught of late Democratic spending in his heavily GOP seat. Vos won by some 17 points.

U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, declared victory after having a closer-than-expected race against former Navy SEAL Derrick Van Orden. Kind, in Congress since 1997, ended up with about 51 percent of thevote compared to Van Orden’s nearly 49 percent.

The other six House incumbents easily won re-election, while Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, cruised to a win in the open 5th Congressional District. Fitzgerald will succeed U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Menomonee Falls, the dean of the state’s congressional delegation. Republicans continue to hold a 5-3 advantage in the delegation.

Despite predictions of chaos and delays, clerks and their teams counted some 2 million absentee ballots on Election Day and into the early morning, reporting full results a lot faster than some states. But misinformation spread anyway. “Wisconsin’s election was conducted according to law and in the open,” said Meagan Wolfe, administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

The Capitol Report is written by editorial staff at, a nonpartisan, Madisonbased news service that specializes in coverage of government and politics, and is distributed for publication by members of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.

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