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Voters cast their ballots in Madison, Wis., on Nov. 8, 2022.
Voters cast their ballots in Madison, Wis., on Nov. 8, 2022.Jim Vondruska / Getty Images file

Reporter's notebook: The key county for Wisconsin Democrats

Dane County in Wisconsin was one of seven counties NBC News was closely tracking as key bellwethers.

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NBC News reporters tracked seven bellwether counties as part of the "County to County" project for the 2022 midterm elections. Here's some of what they learned.

Home to the University of Wisconsin and Wisconsin’s state capital of Madison, Dane County provided a clear measure of Democratic enthusiasm in the battleground state that helped propel President Joe Biden to the White House in 2020. 

The growing county has become increasingly and overwhelming Democratic, helping the party overcome the GOP’s growing advantages in rural areas during high turnout elections.

However, as the Omicron variant swept its way across the country last winter, even Democratic voters were in a sour mood, showing pandemic fatigue amid Biden’s stalled legislative agenda. Our NBNC News poll showed Biden’s approval among Democratic voters in Jan. 2022, dipping to 80%, with a threatening 18% of his base saying they disapproved. 

“There were a lot of promises made up front, which is certainly why I voted for him and I don’t know, it’s a little disappointing to see that we haven’t made a ton of progress,” Samantha Georgson, a Dane County voter who mostly backs Democrats, told NBC News in Madison, a year after President Biden took office. 

But then came the United States Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade, which triggered an 1849 state law that closed abortion clinics across the state with an exemption only for the life of the mother. Abortion access became a key line of messaging for Gov. Tony Evers' successful re-election campaign and Democrat Mandela Barnes' unsuccessful Senate campaign. Democrats doubled down on the message even as polls showed GOP Sen. Ron Johnson gaining momentum with a message on crime.

For young voters in Dane County, it was a message that worked. Abortion access was regularly listed to NBC News a top issue motivating voters.

University of Wisconsin student Valerie Howell, who said she supported Democratic candidates, told NBC News that she likely would have turned out to vote in any case, “but I wouldn’t have been as passionate about it.”

In the end, about 90% of the presidential turnout showed up for the 2022 midterm elections, outpacing the rest of the state. Democrats were enthusiastic, and they'll continue to look to Dane County as key to their path to victory in 2024 and beyond.