But the sharp, and strikingly consistent, geographic and demographic contrasts between the Republican and Democratic coalitions in Michigan and Wisconsin make clear that these explosive fights are also something more. They represent just the newest front in a larger national confrontation: the struggle between metropolitan and nonmetro America for control of the country’s direction.
The tension between cities and their suburbs, and rural areas has been building for years. But it has exploded under Donald Trump, whose overt appeals to anxiety over economic, cultural, and racial change have debilitated the GOP inside metro America but bolstered it beyond.
November’s election powerfully illustrated that trade-off. The innovative classification system for congressional districts developed by our sister publication CityLab divided House districts into six categories, from most urban to most rural and ranked primarily by their population density. Powered by a strong backlash against Trump, Democrats captured 35 Republican-held House seats in the four most urban categories. By comparison, in the two most rural groupings, where Trump remains much stronger, Democrats achieved a net gain of only five seats. The result is a stunning geographic separation: Democrats now control four-fifths of the 251 seats in the four most urban categories, while Republicans hold four-fifths of the 184 seats in the two most rural.
Read: The Republicans’ Midwest “power grab”
This same geographic divide is hardening in virtually every state, including Michigan and Wisconsin. The Democrats Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan and Tony Evers in Wisconsin built their gubernatorial victory primarily on huge margins in bigger cities and advances in the suburban areas around them. (Whitmer won the well-educated, affluent Oakland County outside Detroit by more than 100,000 votes.) But the rural parts of both states still favored the Republican in the governor’s race, especially in Wisconsin.
The same patterns drove state legislative races. With their strength in the biggest population centers, Democrats won more total votes for the Wisconsin State Assembly and both the state House of Representatives and state Senate in Michigan. (Only for the Wisconsin state Senate did the GOP carry a narrow majority.) But because of both the severe gerrymanders that Republicans drew after the 2010 census and the excessive concentration of Democratic votes into urban centers, Republicans maintained the majority of seats in both chambers in both states.
In Michigan, Democrats gained ground in suburban state legislative districts but couldn’t crack the GOP’s rural firewall beyond. “Even in races that people thought might be exceptions to the rural-urban divide, it didn’t turn out that way,” said Matt Grossmann, a political scientist at Michigan State University. Likewise, in Wisconsin, a map of the State Assembly results by Charles Franklin, a law and public-policy professor at Marquette University Law School, shows a blue band of lopsided Democratic advantage from Milwaukee to Madison in an urbanized corridor across the state’s southern border, but moderate to massive Republican leads almost everywhere in the more rural communities further north, except for smaller cities such as Eau Claire and La Crosse. “The Republican base is moving much more from the suburban areas into those rural areas,” precisely as the party’s message is moving “away from traditional Republican politics into Trumpism,” notes Tom Russell, a Madison-based Democratic consultant.