On Sept. 7 of 2011, state representatives Mark Pocan and Kelda Helen Roys both announced they would be running for Congress to replace Tammy Baldwin. Two candidates announcing on the same day is a slightly odd occurrence, but given the political demographics of the district, it might be the closest Roys gets to Pocan for the rest of the campaign.
Take a drive down Williamson Street on Madison's east side, and you'll see a typical, placid college-town scene. The thoroughfare is lined with bars, coffee shops, tattoo parlors and houses with the standard bohemian accoutrements.
Aside from the occasional "Recall Walker" or "Solidarity" window signs, what you don't see is a lot of outward political angst in the neighborhood. Yet the people who live behind the doors that line those streets form the most powerful voting bloc in Wisconsin. And while the voters of Madison's east side may strive for a more diverse Wisconsin, their voting patterns are anything but.
For decades, Madison's quirky stock-in-trade has been its strong liberalism - yet the numbers paint a starker picture than outsiders may think. Basically, any Democrat who runs for local or state office begins with between a 7,000- and 8,000-vote lead just from wards 32, 33, 34 and 35, which run down Williamson's south side.
In 2008, Barack Obama won these four wards (PDF) with 94.7% of the vote, beating John McCain by 7,700 votes. In 2010, Dane County's own U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold pulled 95.2% (7,052 votes) against his challenger, Ron Johnson. Ironically, the Republican who fared best on the east side in 2010 was Scott Walker. He was able to muster 5.1% of the vote, as opposed to 4.8% for Johnson.
It comes as no surprise to anyone who has lived in Madison for more than a week that the near east side is liberal. Unique, however, is the sheer number of votes its wards crank out, and how uniformly one-sided they are. If between 7,000 and 8,000 votes doesn't seem like a lot, ask Supreme Court candidate JoAnne Kloppenburg, who lost by roughly that amount to incumbent Justice David Prosser last April. Ask George W. Bush, who lost Wisconsin in 2000 by 5,708 votes. Without the Lake Monona shoreline, Bush would have won Wisconsin - which means the nation wouldn't have been paralyzed by the controversy over Florida for months, as Bush would have been well past the electoral-vote threshold.
The near east side's monolithic political clout isn't limited to partisan contests, either. This will become apparent in 2012, when three announced Democratic candidates vie for U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin's seat. In fact, it was these four districts, most in Baldwin's state Assembly district, that helped vault her into Congress in the first place.
In 1998, Baldwin faced a four-way primary for the Democratic nomination for Congress. Her toughest competition for the seat was from former Dane County Executive Rick Phelps. While Baldwin only beat Phelps by 2.5% in the primary, she obliterated him on the near east side, garnering 62% to Phelps' 28.1%. She then went on to defeat Republican Jo Musser in the general election, setting up her 2012 run to replace Herb Kohl in the U.S. Senate.
In 2012, the near east side is poised to hand the 2nd Congressional District another Democratic representative. Pocan, former chair of the powerful Joint Finance Committee, represents three of the four primary wards on the near east side (brand-new state Rep. Chris Taylor represents the other). Kelda Helen Roys represents Madison's far east side and some of the city's northern rural suburbs.
It seems almost certain that Pocan will dominate Roys in the monolithic wards that matter the most. If that's the case, this race could be over before it starts. Roys may have to find 7,000 Democratic votes in other areas of the district, which seems to be a stretch, given Pocan's likeability and high profile.
What's certain is that those same wards will provide an ample 8,000-vote cushion for Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential contest. Any GOP contender who wants to be the first to win Wisconsin since Ronald Reagan in 1984 will have to beat that spread. And the world will be watching.
Christian Schneider lives in Madison, works for the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, and blogs at christianschneiderblog.com.