The Corner

Law & the Courts

How Conservatives Scored a Stunning Upset in Wisconsin

(Carlos Jasso/Reuters)

On Wednesday, liberal-backed Wisconsin supreme court candidate Lisa Neubauer formally conceded to conservative-backed Brian Hagedorn after the official canvas of the vote only increased Hagedorn’s lead of roughly 6,000 votes out of 1.2 million ballots cast.

As we reported last week, Hagedorn’s victory was nothing short of stunning. His campaign had been left for dead by some business groups in the state after his opponents attacked him as an anti-LGBT bigot for founding a private Christian school that upholds traditional Christian beliefs about marriage and sex. The Wisconsin Realtors Association withdrew its endorsement, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce decided to stay out of the race.

But the business community’s squeamishness in Wisconsin was not shared by Republican leaders and conservative activists. Former governor Scott Walker, Senator Ron Johnson, and conservative talk radio stood by Hagedorn.

The libertarian Americans for Prosperity executed its ground game as planned, working hand-in-hand with a record number of volunteers, many of whom were social conservatives outraged by what they saw as an attack on Hagedorn’s faith.

And the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) provided critical air support to Hagedorn during the last week of the campaign. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign reported that liberal groups backing Neubauer outspent conservative groups backing Hagedorn by as much as a 14-1 margin until the last week of the race, when the RSLC swooped in with a million-dollar ad campaign. It didn’t erase the disparity between conservative and liberal spending in the state, but did narrow the gap.

As officials at the RSLC explain in a memo, the organization found Hagedorn down 8 points—42 percent to 34 percent—a little more than one week before the election. But the poll also showed that they had a path to victory by turning out the conservative base that had sat out a state supreme court race in 2018, when the liberal judicial candidate defeated the conservative by 12 percentage points.

“Through the polling we identified that Judge Hagedorn’s biggest challenge was that he was not winning among Republicans (+50%) as much as his opponent was winning among Democrats (+71%). Equalizing the partisan intensity made this a two point race,” the memo states.

One message promoted by the RSLC was that liberal special interest groups were smearing Hagedorn “just like they did against Justice Kavanaugh.”

“I think you can’t understate” the importance of the Kavanaugh message, says the RSLC’s David James.

Had conservatives lost the race, they likely would have set up liberals to win a majority on the court next year, when the next state supreme court election coincides with the presidential primary, where Democratic turnout will be high. They’ve now likely secured a conservative majority for several more years and sent a message about the perils of attacking a candidate as a bigot for believing a private Christian school should uphold traditional Christian teachings about sex and marriage.

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