Last week’s Madison mayoral primary drew a low turnout, and yet it produced a dramatic result. When the ballots were counted, less than 350 votes separated Paul Soglin, the most durable political figure in the city’s history, from Satya Rhodes-Conway, a previously little-known former alder who combined grass-roots campaigning with savvy use of social media.
It was a dismal finish for Soglin, a veteran officeholder whose three most serious challengers were first-time candidates for citywide office. Though the mayor enjoyed the advantages of incumbency, name recognition and solid fundraising, 71.4 percent of the Madisonians who bothered to vote opted for a candidate other than Soglin.
That should give Rhodes-Conway the upper hand going into the April 2 general election. She should be able to appeal to a good many of the supporters of third-place finisher Mo Cheeks, a west-side alder who won almost a quarter of the vote, and fourth-place finisher Raj Shukla, an environmental activist who took 18 percent and showed considerable strength downtown.
The incumbent’s best hope is not in a fight for the votes of the other contenders in the primary but for a big boost in turnout. In particular, he needs to generate excitement in the wards on the farthest east and west sides of the city, where he finished first in the primary.
Soglin had competed in almost a dozen mayoral primaries since 1971. They’ve often been intense contests that genuinely engaged voters.
This year’s primary contest was not one of them.
Consider this: Soglin’s first mayoral primary win, in 1973, came in an election that saw 44,794 Madison voters cast ballots. On Tuesday, only 37,706 voters showed up.
The 1973 contest and the 2019 contest each included four serious competitors. Yet turnout was down by more than 7,000 votes. That’s bad. But what makes the collapse in participation even more notable is the fact that Madison’s population was under 175,000 in the early 1970s, while the current population estimate is in the range of 255,000.
This year’s primary simply did not generate the kind of excitement inspired by crowded mayoral contests of the past.
For instance, 2019 primary turnout was down a whopping 4,500 votes from the 1977 primary, the last in which Soglin competed during his first stint as mayor. It was down significantly from 1989, when Soglin mounted his first comeback bid. It was down even more significantly from 2003, when he mounted his second (unsuccessful) comeback bid. And it was no better than the low-profile primary when Soglin mounted his third comeback bid in 2011.
So perhaps Soglin can blame low turnout for some of his trouble this year. And, make no mistake, he’s got trouble.
Soglin’s 29 percent total last Tuesday was his weakest primary finish since his first primary win in 1973. That year, it was Soglin who was best positioned to secure the votes of the candidates who did not make it through the primary — liberals Dave Stewart and Leo Cooper. He did just that and won the general election competition with conservative incumbent Bill Dyke.
Now, by most reasonable measures, it is Rhodes-Conway who stands to be the beneficiary of any rejection of incumbency and the status quo.
So is Soglin doomed? Not necessarily. Anyone who has paid attention to Madison politics over the past five decades knows that it is never wise to count this guy out. The mayor has definitely done himself harm. His listless 2018 gubernatorial bid removed any sense of invincibility he may have maintained. His July 2018 announcement that he would retire from the mayoralty at the end of his current term, and his decision to reverse course after he finished seventh in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, invited voters to consider alternatives.
Now, Soglin faces two complex challenges: He must do his best to attract whatever backing he can garner from the Madisonians who gave almost 42 percent of the primary vote to Cheeks and Shukla, and he must get a lot more people a lot more excited about turning out to re-elect him on April 2.
It’s worth noting that Soglin has fought his way out of difficult positions before.
When the mayor was seeking his third term in 1977, he won just 31 percent of the primary vote, compared with almost 40 percent for conservative challenger Nino Amato. The Capital Times headline the next day read: “It was not a good evening for the mayor of Madison.” Soglin, who had put little effort into his primary campaign, was jarred into taking his 25-year-old challenger seriously. While his allies ripped Amato (sometimes unfairly), Soglin mounted a smart, aggressive campaign that reached out to the whole city. Turnout spiked, and he won with 64 percent of the vote. Amato took just 36 percent that April, down three points from his primary finish. The incumbent added 34,000 votes to his total between the primary and general election, while the challenger gained fewer than 10,000.
Obviously, Soglin hopes for a similar turnaround this time. To have a chance, he’s got to hope that the mayoral race (along with other local contests and a statewide Supreme Court contest) will produce a dramatically higher turnout. Even that could be insufficient to provide the support he needs. But Soglin cannot begin to dream of turning this thing around without turning out a lot more voters who are a lot more enthusiastic about his latest re-election run.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising.
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