A conservative former adviser to ex-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker ® claimed victory in a closely fought race for a state Supreme Court seat in Wisconsin early Wednesday, potentially cementing a Republican-leaning majority for years to come.
With all but a small handful of precincts reporting, Judge Brian Hagedorn clung to a narrow 6,000-vote lead — or about four-tenths of a percentage point — over Judge Lisa Neubauer, the candidate backed by Wisconsin’s Democratic Party.
“The people of Wisconsin have spoken, and our margin of victory is insurmountable,” Hagedorn said in an early-morning statement. “The voters chose to have a Court that keeps personal political beliefs out of the courtroom and applies the law as written.”
The Associated Press had not yet called the race, and it was not immediately clear how many absentee votes had yet to be counted. A recount is likely if the results remain that close; state law allows a losing candidate to request a recount if the results are within 1 percentage point.
The results are a significant blow to Democrats, who hoped to rebuild a liberal majority in the next Supreme Court election, in 2020. If Hagedorn’s lead holds, he would be the fifth conservative on the seven-member court, replacing the state’s longest-serving justice, liberal Shirley Abrahamson.
Hagedorn’s win is an early sign that Wisconsin remains at the fulcrum of the national political debate. Walker won his two terms as governor, as well as a recall election, by the slimmest of margins. Gov. Tony Evers (D) beat Walker in 2018 by just 30,000 votes.
Both Democrats and Republicans see Wisconsin as a critical stop on their path to 270 electoral votes in the 2020 presidential election, and Republicans striking a win even when Democratic enthusiasm is so high will be seen as a promising sign for President Trump.
Though judicial contests are officially nonpartisan in Wisconsin, the candidates’ partisan alignment was no secret.
Neubauer had support from liberal groups like the National Democratic Redistricting Trust, run by former Attorney General Eric Holder. Her daughter is a Democratic state representative, and her husband formerly ran the state Democratic Party. Hagedorn, who worked in Walker’s administration, earned support from state and national Republican groups.
Both candidates raised more than $1 million, and outside groups spent millions more. Holder’s group spent at least $350,000, and a union group dropped another $835,000 on Neubauer’s behalf. The Republican State Leadership Committee spent at least $1 million in the closing days to influence the race.
The stakes were so high because the ideological balance on Wisconsin’s highest court is on a knife’s edge. Conservatives hold a 4-3 majority on the court. If liberals had been able to maintain that edge, they would have had a chance at reclaiming the majority next year, when Justice Daniel Kelly, a member of the conservative wing, is up for election.
Kelly will be running on the same day that Wisconsin Democrats pick their party’s presidential nominee, virtually guaranteeing mammoth turnout at a moment when Republicans have far less reason to show up.
The balance of power on the court has been crucial in a state where partisan fervor has risen to new heights. The conservative majority on the court upheld many of Walker’s top priorities over the last decade, and the next majority — whether liberal or conservative — is likely to decide contentious issues like redistricting.
This is the new normal, keep counting until you find enough votes for the democrats to win.