Where to Watch in the Race for Madison Mayor

Author: Will Kenneally

The two candidates running for mayor, Paul Soglin and Satya Rhodes-Conway, were separated by a little more than 300 votes in the primary and now face each other in a contentious general election.

“I don’t think anybody’s going to run away with it,” says former Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz. “I think it’s just going to be very close.”

As Madison heads to the polls, here’s what to look for in the race to become the city’s mayor.

Rhodes-Conway: East side alder challenges incumbent mayor

Votes for Satya Rhodes-Conway in the Feb. 2019 primary (Will Kenneally/WSUM)

Satya Rhodes-Conway represented Madison’s east side on the city council for six years, which is where she saw her strongest base of support in the primary. Her highest vote totals come from the Eken Park neighborhood which she represented on the council and the Atwood neighborhood slightly south.

Cieslewicz says this is partially due to the political leanings of the area.

“I think she is perceived [as being more liberal than Soglin], and maybe on a few issues she might be a little bit to the left Paul–I think that’s one of the reasons she does well there,” Cieslewicz says.

Rhodes-Conway also sees her largest vote margins on the east side, where she racked up her biggest wins against Soglin in the primary. In some of the wards along the Lake Monona shoreline, she more than tripled the votes received by Soglin.

Cieslewicz says this is key to her chances of victory, saying she needs to garner a 2-1 margin over the mayor on the isthmus and the near east side.

Despite the east side base, Rhodes-Conway says her strategy focuses on the entire city.

“I have been knocking doors on the west side for weeks,” she said at a post-primary news conference. “I think we’re well on the way to [introducing me to west side voters] for sure.”

Paul Soglin: Incumbent mayor finds support across the city

Votes for Paul Soglin in the Feb. 2019 primary election (Will Kenneally/WSUM)

Compared to Rhodes-Conway, Soglin’s base of support is much more geographically diverse. The long-term mayor began his career as a city alder from a downtown district and now lives on the city’s west side. Soglin’s best-performing wards however, are spread across Madison’s far west, east and north sides. Cieslewicz says that these are the areas of the city that may know the mayor best.

“You find an older population in that part of the city I think that’s a large part–these are people who literally have been voting for Soglin for decades,” Cieslewicz says.

He adds that Soglin may be more in line with the politics of these areas.

“Compared to the isthmus, they’re a little bit more centrist,” Cieslewicz says.

Similar to Rhodes-Conway, Soglin says his intention is to focus on the whole city.

“We will address specific issues that relate to each area of the city, as well as city-wide issues,” Soglin said after the primary as he laid out his general election strategy.

Inroads for the candidates:

The candidates who lost in the primary–Mo Cheeks, Raj Shukla and Nick Hart–combined for 44 percent of the primary vote for which the general election candidates will now vie.

Of the two losing candidates who won significant vote totals, Mo Cheeks wards generally voted for Soglin as their second choice and Raj Shukla wards generally did the same for Rhodes-Conway. If the wards follow these patterns in the general election, Shukla’s campus wards add to Rhodes-Conway’s support downtown and on the isthmus. Similarly, Cheeks’s wards in the south and west of the city would add to Soglin’s block on the west side.

Cieslewicz says this makes sense based on who the candidates are.

“[Shukla’s] voters, I think tended to be a little bit further to the left, more ideological,” Cieslewicz says. “The thought was that Mo Cheeks was going to be the more moderate sort of candidate, a candidate to would do well citywide but not overwhelmingly well in any one part of the city.”

Cieslewicz says that “a lion’s share” of the primary vote for losing candidates will likely go to Rhodes-Conway, by virtue that those voters will continue to vote against the incumbent.

Primary results if only Paul Soglin and Satya Rhodes-Conway were in the race. Blue is Soglin, green is Rhodes-Conway, light green is a split vote (Will Kenneally/WSUM)

Importance of turnout:

The electorate will look very different comparing the general to the primary, as Soglin stressed in a post-primary news conference.

“We also have to keep in mind that we’ve got probably a doubling of the vote in the general election. So we’ve got another 40,000 people out there too, to address and to respond to their concerns about our city,” he said at the news conference.

With a contested Supreme Court race at the top of the ballot, turnout is expected to be higher than the primary. Cieslewicz says a higher turnout race favors Soglin as the incumbent.

“Normally, you’d say a high-turnout election would benefit the challenger, but I think it’s just the opposite here,” he says. “Somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000 to 30,000 people will show up to vote today who didn’t vote back in February, and each one of those voters I think gives Paul [Soglin] a greater opportunity.”

Overall, Cieslewicz says the race will be tight, but he thinks Rhodes-Conway has the edge.

“I’d be surprised if anybody got more than 52 percent of the vote,” he says.

Where to watch:

Two wards on the northwest side were tied between Soglin and Rhodes-Conway in the primary and may serve as bellwethers for the general election. The other ward that may speak to the nature of the race is the 79th on the city’s west side, which had the second-highest turnout in the city and saw Soglin with a slight 26-vote lead over Rhodes-Conway in the primary.

Cieslewicz says the near east side will be key to watch, to see if Rhodes-Conway garners the large margin she needs to carry the whole city.

Full results and our analysis can be found via this spreadsheet.