The Slatest

Progressives Lose Wisconsin Supreme Court, Ensuring Conservative Dominance in State for Years to Come

The Wisconsin State Capitol at night.
The Wisconsin State Capitol on Dec. 4 in Madison.
Andy Manis/Getty Images

On Wednesday, progressive Lisa Neubauer conceded last week’s Wisconsin Supreme Court race to Brian Hagedorn, a staunch Republican, ensuring that the state Supreme Court will have an entrenched conservative majority until at least August 2023. The political fallout from this result is hard to overstate: The conservative majority on the state judiciary is likely to rubber-stamp the gerrymandered Republican Legislature’s extreme power grabs while approving gerrymandered maps after next year’s census. This one race essentially guarantees that conservatives will dominate the toss-up state’s politics for years to come, no matter how Wisconsin’s voters actually cast their ballots.

Both candidates currently serve on the state appeals court. Hagedorn defeated Neubauer by about 6,000 votes out of 1.2 million cast. Neubauer declined to request a recount. Hagedorn will replace the liberal Justice Shirley Abrahamson, increasing the Republican justices’ majority from 4–3 to 5–2. To win a majority now, Democrats will need to defeat Republican Justice Daniel Kelly in 2020, then oust Republican Chief Justice Patience D. Roggensack in 2023.

Neubauer was widely expected to win Abrahamson’s seat easily after Rebecca Dallet, a liberal, won a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court by a huge margin in 2018. Her opponent, Hagedorn, lost support after local media reported that he gave paid speeches to the anti-LGBTQ law firm Alliance Defending Freedom as an appeals court judge; claimed that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down sodomy laws could lead to the legalization of bestiality; serves on the board of an academy that expels students and fires teachers for being gay; wrote that gay pride month is “homosexual propaganda” that creates “a hostile work environment for Christians”; and labeled Planned Parenthood a “wicked organization.” Hagedorn also represented Scott Walker when the former GOP governor refused to defend a state law granting hospital visitation rights to same-sex couples.

In response to this anti-LGBTQ record, the Wisconsin Realtors Association withdrew its endorsement of Hagedorn. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which funnels money to conservative judicial candidates through the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, also pulled its financial backing of his campaign. In the last week of the campaign, however, the Republican State Leadership Committee spent $1.2 million boosting Hagedorn, a late infusion of cash that appears to have pushed him over the top. (The National Democratic Redistricting Committee spent $350,000 supporting Neubauer, though Democratic leaders, including 2020 hopefuls, were almost entirely absent from the campaign.) The race was Wisconsin’s most expensive state Supreme Court election in a decade, with candidates and outside groups spending more than $6 million combined.

There are a few obvious consequences of Hagedorn’s victory. Because conservatives will now hold the Wisconsin Supreme Court until at least August 2023, there is little chance that the majority will rein in the GOP-dominated State Assembly. The conservative justices will probably approve legislative Republicans’ 2018 power grab, when lawmakers weakened incoming Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ ability to enact progressive reforms. Moreover, the court will likely allow legislators to create another partisan gerrymander after the 2020 census that entrenches GOP power for the following decade. Evers can veto Republicans’ map, but without Democratic control of either legislative chamber, he will only have so much power to limit GOP dominance. And the current gerrymander ensures that Republicans will maintain their stranglehold on the assembly through the next round of redistricting.

Neubauer’s unexpected loss proves, once again, that Republican leaders simply care more about judicial elections than Democrats. After huge victories in Wisconsin’s 2018 races, liberals failed to turn out for Neubauer in sufficient numbers. Their apathy ensured that the Wisconsin Supreme Court will remain in arch-conservative hands for at least four more years.

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