As of this morning, Judge Brian Hagedorn is clinging to a 5,800-vote lead in the race to replace the iconic liberal Wisconsin Supreme Court justice Shirley Abrahamson. A recount is expected to follow, but it appears conservatives have won a stunning upset in this marquee judicial contest.
The race between Hagedorn and his liberal opponent, Lisa Neubauer, took numerous ugly turns, with Neubauer and her media allies settling on a disturbing message: Individuals who actually live out their faith are simply ineligible to serve in higher office. But such bare-knuckle tactics appear to have backfired, and it’s worth considering the reasons why.
First, the grassroots still matter in Wisconsin. While there are certainly varying degrees of conservatism within the state GOP, come election time the Wisconsin party apparatus, talk radio, outside conservative-advocacy groups, and every-day citizens unify behind their candidates. As the results from last night prove, there is never any margin for error, so a complete team effort is always required.
Over the last 72 hours, get-out-the-vote emails have been pouring into inboxes statewide, many from organizations and groups that clearly have skin in the game. But I also received no fewer than a dozen emails from everyday citizens who took time out of their respective schedules to write passionate pleas imploring family and friends to get out and vote. That is the definition of the grassroots.
Numerous organizations withstood the onslaught of negative ads, false media narratives, and political dog whistles to support Hagedorn, even when others abandoned him. The Wisconsin Realtors Association, typically a reliable ally of conservatives in statewide contests, rescinded its endorsement and demanded a return of $18,000 in contributions amid the attacks. The National Chamber of Commerce, another key backer of conservatives in past Supreme Court races, declared in turn that it was sitting this one out. Thankfully, groups such as American Majority, Americans for Prosperity, Pro-Life Wisconsin, Wisconsin Right to Life, and the Wisconsin Family Council stood with Hagedorn. Most critical of all was the Republican State Leadership Committee’s Judicial Fairness Initiative, which made a six-figure ad buy during the campaign’s final week that provided Hagedorn desperately needed help.
Second, good candidates still matter. In 2018 the conservative candidate for Wisconsin Supreme Court was a little-known circuit-court judge from the western part of the state. While a respected attorney, he had zero connection to the grassroots base farther east. In contrast, Hagedorn is well known in conservative circles statewide. A former Supreme Court clerk, assistant attorney general, and chief legal counsel to Governor Scott Walker, he offered a compelling message of judicial restraint in the face of vicious personal attacks on his faith and family.
Finally, the results last night further establish that faith-based attacks remain a risky campaign strategy. Refusing to articulate any coherent judicial philosophy, Neubauer settled on the disturbing message that people of faith are ineligible to serve. During law school, Hagedorn commented in a blog on hot-button social and legal issues from a conservative Christian’s perspective. Such commentary is certainly fair game in any contest. But Neubauer and her media allies went further. They attacked Hagedorn and his wife for starting a private grade school that demanded students and teachers adhere to traditional Christian notions of sexual morality, in an effort to spin a great success story as something sinister. And they painted him as a bigot for being involved with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a religious-liberty-advocacy organization that has been absurdly labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Christian voters noticed, and may have played a critical role in propelling Hagedorn to victory.
Assuming Hagedorn’s lead holds, it will go down as one of the most stunning, and rewarding, wins for Wisconsin conservatives in the last decade. Instead of being disheartened following Governor Walker’s loss this fall, the Wisconsin grassroots dusted themselves off and got back into the arena to prevent a leftward lurch on the court that would have presumably threatened many of Walker’s reforms. Instead of cowering in the face of vicious attacks, Hagedorn calmly articulated a message based on first principles — and looks to have won. That’s worth celebrating.