For the first time in nearly four decades, Wisconsin Democrats swept elections for every partisan constitutional office on the ballot, earning control of the executive and judicial branches of state government. But Tuesday's midterm election also left Republicans with commanding control of both chambers of the state Legislature, setting officials in Madison up for friction after years of smooth sailing for Republican-led initiatives.
Democratic state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers defeated Republican Gov. Scott Walker by 1.16 percentage points, according to unofficial totals tallied Wednesday morning. Walker called Evers to concede the race Wednesday afternoon in a conversation both men described as "gracious."
"It has been my honor to serve as your governor for nearly eight years. We’ve come a long way together and it is my sincere hope that the progress we’ve made during our time in office will continue and that we can keep Wisconsin working for generations to come," Walker said in a statement, adding that he has offered the "full support" of his staff and cabinet to assist with the transition process.
Evers, 67, thwarted an attempt by Walker, 51, to become the second Wisconsin governor elected to a third four-year term. With Evers' win, former state Rep. Mandela Barnes, 31, will become the state's first black lieutenant governor.
Evers and Barnes visited the Dane County Boys & Girls Club Wednesday afternoon, just 12 hours after taking the stage to declare victory at the Orpheum Theater in the wee hours of the morning. Joined by state Rep.-elect Shelia Stubbs, D-Madison, they toured the club and spoke briefly to reporters.
In his remarks to media, Evers said he will start to announce plans for his transition team in the coming days. He said he has not made any hiring decisions for his administration, but will select people who will "put Wisconsin first."
The win for Evers and Barnes is buoyed by an even tighter victory for Democratic attorney general candidate Josh Kaul, who topped Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel by just 0.86 percentage points.
Evers and Kaul have pledged to work quickly to pull the state out of a lawsuit that seeks to strike down the Affordable Care Act and its protections for individuals with pre-existing conditions, which the state entered under Walker's and Schimel's direction.
Kaul, 37, declared victory Wednesday morning in Madison. He pledged to increase prosecution of companies that violate environmental laws, send more mental health funding to schools, go after large pharmaceutical companies for their role in the opioid epidemic and proactively enforce the state's environmental laws to crack down on polluters.
Schimel, 53, said in a statement that he would not concede until results are finalized, but promised to assist with a "smooth transition" if Kaul maintains his lead through the process.
In more decisive victories, Secretary of State Doug La Follette held onto his seat with a 5.6-point margin, and Democrat Sarah Godlewski won the vacant state treasurer seat.
La Follette, 77, will serve his 11th term in an office that has seen its duties and powers greatly reduced over the last several years. The office is no longer responsible for publishing bills signed into law by the governor, and does not oversee state elections like in some other states.
The powers of the treasurer's office have also been cut significantly in recent years. But by a 23-point margin, Wisconsin voters chose in April not to eliminate the office entirely — an effort championed by Godlewski, 36, who was elected to the position by a 4.2-point margin. The treasurer oversees unclaimed property and is a member of the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands, which operates a trust which provides aid for public school libraries and offers loans to municipalities and school districts.
The last time Democrats were elected to all five of these positions was 1982, and one of them was La Follette as secretary of state. In that election, Tony Earl was elected governor, James Flynn was elected lieutenant governor, Bronson La Follette was elected attorney general and Charles Smith was elected treasurer.
But despite having broad control of the state's executive and judicial functions, Democrats gained essentially no ground in the state Legislature — a scenario that could prime the Capitol for years of gridlock.
Senate Republicans picked up the 1st Senate District after briefly losing it in a June special election, bringing their total to 19 of the chamber's 33 seats. Assembly Republicans are poised to hold onto a 64-seat majority.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, is expected to speak with reporters on Thursday.
Evers said Wednesday he has reached out to both legislative leaders and looks forward to finding ways to work with them on bipartisan approaches to transportation, health care and education policies.
"I believe that both those leaders understand how important the issues that we talked about in the campaign are," Evers said. "So we're going to sit down, you know, I know both of them well, so it's not like we have to get to know each other, but I would really like to talk to them about how we can set the stage going forward so that we can find common ground on those important issues. Clearly in the past there has been lots of discussion about health care, lots of discussion about transportation, about making sure that we have great public schools. So I don't think we have any disagreement on the ultimate goal, we just have to find that middle ground."
In a statement issued late Wednesday afternoon, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said he returned Evers' phone call to congratulate him. Vos said they will do their best "to find common ground when possible."
"The reality is that the voters of Wisconsin have chosen divided government," Vos said. "The state that elected Tony Evers as governor also chose 64 hardworking and passionate Republicans to represent areas throughout our great state. While yesterday was a win for Governor-elect Evers, it cannot be seen as any kind of mandate for change. Assembly Republicans will continue to deliver on our conservative promises to our constituents and won’t allow Wisconsin to slide backward."
Evers will be sworn in on Jan. 7, 2019.