Redrawing Wisconsin's 7th Congressional District: How GOP hopes to again gain power with new maps

By Allison Garfield

Northwestern and central Wisconsin voters who will be affected by new state legislative maps — now being hard-fought between Republicans and Democrats — could also find themselves in new congressional districts that might help shift the national balance of power.

Redistricting at the state and federal levels influences who wins elections, how political power is distributed, which communities are represented and which laws are passed. How the congressional districts are redrawn could be key to the 2022 midterm elections and, ultimately, whether Democrats can hold on to their majority in Congress.

No congressional district in Wisconsin has moved farther in a Republican direction since maps were last redrawn in 2011 than the 7th District. The district includes much of northwestern and north central Wisconsin, including Wausau and Superior. 

What will that partisan shift and redistricting mean for people in mostly rural northern Wisconsin? That's debatable, but political observers say it's most likely 7th District voters will keep electing Republicans to the U.S. House for the foreseeable future, while the neighboring 3rd District has better odds of flipping — from Democrat blue to GOP red.

Derided as gerrymandering when the party in power uses the process to stay in the majority, redistricting happens every decade as states draw new maps after the U.S. census to rebalance the population in each legislative and congressional district.

For more than 50 years, the courts had the final say in Wisconsin because Democrats and Republicans split control of state government.  But in 2011, the GOP controlled both the legislative and executive branches — the state Assembly, Senate and governor's office under Scott Walker — and moved huge swaths of voters into new districts to help create maps that would give them large majorities in the Legislature.

The effort wasn't limited to state legislative maps, and its effects weren't felt only in Wisconsin.

7th Congressional District history: From David Obey to Tom Tiffany

Also in 2011, to protect Sean Duffy, their party's freshman representative in the U.S. House, Wisconsin Republicans who controlled the redistricting process shifted three Democratic cities from Duffy’s northern district to the 3rd, Ron Kind’s western district. 

Prior to Duffy's tenure, the 7th, covering most of rural northern Wisconsin, had been a solidly purple seat even as voters kept re-electing Democrat David Obey, who represented the district for 42 years.

Ultimately, the map that passed in 2011 made the 7th safer for Duffy — making the district redder — and in exchange made Kind’s district bluer by shifting Democratic areas of Portage County and half of Wood County into the 3rd.

Kind suddenly represented the Democratic-dominated central Wisconsin cities of Stevens Point and Wisconsin Rapids, potentially saving him from defeat in 2020, when he barely won reelection.  

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the 7th district has become steadily more conservative in its representation over the past decade, with Republican Tom Tiffany now holding the congressional seat. Tiffany won the seat after a special election in May 2020 and once more in the general election in November 2020.

Wisconsin GOP Executive Director Mark Jefferson said the drastic change in 7th District voting patterns is partially because of changes in the Democratic Party between when Obey was in office and today. 

"Back then, the Democratic Party considered rural, working-class voters the backbone of America. That's changed pretty dramatically today," Jefferson said. "Now, the Democrats are really alienating the same people they embraced a generation ago."

The Democratic Party, which once held prominent state legislative seats in northern and central Wisconsin — in Portage County, Wood County and Marathon County — has "left rural areas behind," according to Jefferson. All but one of the state Assembly and Senate seats in those three central Wisconsin counties are now held by Republicans. (State Rep. Katrina Shankland is the only Democrat in those three counties, representing Portage County in the Assembly). 

"Things have changed. Republicans have organized better more recently and more importantly, they have won (with) candidates more in touch with those areas," Jefferson said. "All you have to do is look to the election Tom Tiffany won; the Democrats recognize that they're no longer a force in northern Wisconsin. They're not getting support up there."

Tiffany won the general election with 61% of the votes.

Wisconsin Democrats Executive Director Nellie Sires contended that over the past few years specifically, her party has made a significant "investment and commitment to reach every community across the state."

For example, Sires cited President Joe Biden and Gov. Tony Evers' efforts to expand access to broadband internet as a critical issue in the 7th district and essential to reaching voters. The Republican Party isn't matching those policy efforts, she said. 

"We’re able to positively engage voters across the state because we are backed by leaders who are delivering for rural and urban communities alike," Sires said. "Thanks to the GOP gerrymander (in 2011), our state became less of a democracy and the traditional Wisconsin values represented by Congressman Obey were abandoned for a bare-knuckle race to the far right by Republican politicians."

"We will continue to remind voters that Democrats are voting to provide for Wisconsin families, and Republicans are voting against them,” she said.

A 'safe place for strident, Trump-style Republicans'

Since redistricting 10 years ago, the 7th Congressional has run 5 to 10 points more Republican than the state as a whole in presidential elections. Trump held a 19.9-point margin in the district in November 2020, almost four points higher than his next widest margin in the 8th District, which Trump carried by 16 points. 

Barry Burden, a professor in American politics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says that's a drastic shift, and he offered explanations for the change beyond a more liberal turn by the Democratic Party.

Until 2010, the district was competitive because Obey was the long-term incumbent who was well known. Though he was more liberal than his district, Obey's emphasis on nonpartisan issues was crucial to his success, Burden believes.

"He held the district longer than you'd expect Democrats to, just because he had such a firm understanding of what voters wanted," Burden said. "He was such a familiar face to them."

Obey's decision not to seek another term and a new round of redistricting, which occurred simultaneously, marked a turning point.

With the Republic Party appealing more to rural and older white voters with lower levels of education, the district steadily became more conservative.

Then, Trump "really just turned that on steroids," Burden said.

"All of those factors kind of conspired to make the 7th District a pretty safe place for strident, Trump-style Republicans," he said.

In Marathon County — the largest county in the 7th Congressional and home to its biggest city, Wausau — Republicans swept local legislative races in November 2020. The county also remained strongly Republican in the presidential election, with 58% of votes going to Trump and 40% to Biden. The county saw a similar pattern in the 2016 general election, with Trump taking 56% of votes and Hillary Clinton landing just 38%.

Jefferson, of the state GOP, attributed Republicans' electoral success in recent years to Trump's ability to effectively relate to the district.

In the 2012 presidential election, Marathon County saw much closer margins between the parties, with 52.4% of the county voting for Republican Mitt Romney and 46.3% voting for Democrat Barack Obama. 

"Some of the strongest Democratic areas are becoming battleground areas because (of) President Trump," Jefferson said. "The voters are independent and they're not necessarily enamored with any party. This is a part of the state where people still say, 'I vote for the person and not the party.'"

Neither Tiffany nor Obey responded to USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin's interview requests, but former Congressman Duffy, who served five terms between the two representatives, said Obey lost support because he was "out of touch" with voters in the district.

"Obey lived in D.C., and you become out of touch if you don't go to Walmart to shop, if you don't go to church, when you don't come home," Duffy said. "(Voters in the 7th) were willing to take a second look at the Republican Party and at me, specifically, a candidate who's lived there his whole life and was willing to go fight for them.

"I was the ugly duckling in politics of the five Republican congressional districts."

Duffy — who momentarily returned to the center of Wisconsin politics in mid-October after Trump urged him to run for governor — expects Democrats to attempt to shift the district back to left-leaning voters. 

"The 7th District is the most Republican district and not because of redistricting," Duffy told USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin. "The new lines are going to be making a concerted effort to pack in more blue."

Burden thinks it's going to be a challenge for Democrats to get a footing back in the 7th. There aren't many pockets of demographics in the district that are going to be reliable — or even available — to Democrats. 

To win, Democrats would need something unusual to happen, like the incumbent stepping down or becoming tangled in a scandal, and they would need to be prepared with a strong candidate waiting in the wings.

"Unless this current redistricting cycle that's just getting underway radically changes the district, I think it's going to be tough for Democrats to have success there," Burden said. "They've run some other strong candidates in red districts around the state but they just can't break in." 

Meanwhile, Democrats vulnerable in 3rd

While Republicans look to keep a solid hold on the 7th District, they've now targeted the neighboring 3rd Congressional District as a key piece to reclaim a GOP majority in the House in 2022. Ron Kind, who has served Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District, perhaps the most competitive in the state, for more than 25 years, is not seeking reelection in 2022.

Republican state lawmakers say this time they want to make as few changes as possible to Wisconsin’s election maps. In a redistricting plan released Oct. 20, the GOP leaders who control the Legislature would maintain a large advantage in Assembly races.

Republicans plan to approve their plans as soon as next month, but Democratic Gov. Evers is likely to veto them, leaving it to the courts to decide how to draw the districts.

Under their plan, Republicans also would have the edge in congressional races, with six of the state's eight congressional districts having a GOP advantage, including the 3rd and the 7th.

The new map proposes moving the city of Stevens Point out of the 3rd District and into the 7th instead, taking the left-leaning city out of the equation for a potential toss-up election in the 3rd and shifting it instead into Tiffany's reliably Republican district.

Janet Bewley, a Democrat who was elected to the Wisconsin Assembly in November 2010, represents a legislative district along the shores of Lake Superior in the northernmost portion of the 7th Congressional.

She attributed the start of the 7th District's evolution to the 2010 presidential election, what she called a "watershed moment" and a "tsunami of red" across the state. She said it's been an uphill struggle for Democrats — especially in more conservative districts — ever since.

"If I can just let people know that, ultimately, I want to serve them, it doesn't matter what color they are, red or purple or blue," Bewley said. "I want to provide the district with what it needs in order for people to have a good way of life."

And while she's come to appreciate the complexities of the larger congressional district — which she said can bring challenges, but makes it "fascinating" to represent — she's ready for new maps.

"We had to deal with a decade of those gerrymandered maps and we've been fighting ever since," Bewley said. "We are hoping that the upcoming maps are going to be more balanced and that we will see Wisconsin look like the purple state that we still are."