Supreme Court race sets up new battle for Wisconsin

Supreme Court race sets up new battle for Wisconsin

Democrats and Republicans are gearing up for an unexpectedly high-profile battle over a seat on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court that will offer new hints about President TrumpDonald John TrumpClinton and Ocasio-Cortez joke about Kushner's alleged use of WhatsApp Missouri Gov. declares state of emergency amid severe flooding Swalwell on Hicks testimony: 'She's going to have to tell us who she lied for' in Trump admin MORE’s chances of winning the key Midwestern battleground for a second time.

At stake in the April 2 election is a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, where Justice Shirley Abrahamson is retiring after more than four decades on the bench.

But in the longer term, the battle is really about the future of a state that has become the epicenter of some of the most contentious political fights of the last decade.

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The race is ostensibly nonpartisan, but in a state rife with partisan tension, it is nonpartisan in name only. The two candidates vying to succeed Abrahamson are Brian Hagedorn, who is backed by Republicans, and Lisa Neubauer, who is supported by Democrats.

“Nowadays, nonpartisan elections are sort of a joke, especially for offices like this,” said Paul Nolette, a political scientist at Marquette University.

Hagedorn is a former top attorney to then-Gov. Scott Walker (R) who helped craft and defend some of Walker’s most controversial pieces of legislation.

Neubauer is backed by some of the nation’s largest unions — many of which battled endlessly with Walker. Her daughter is a Democratic member of the state Assembly.

Public employee unions like the American Federation of Teachers, AFSCME and the National Education Association have spent heavily on Neubauer’s behalf. So has the Service Employees union. The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a group run by former Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderJeff Sessions returns to Justice Department to retrieve Cabinet chair The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump steps up attacks on McCain Court-packing becomes new litmus test on left MORE, has pledged $350,000 on her behalf.

The race will be the latest test of the political atmosphere in Wisconsin, which is at the center of both Democratic and Republican plans to win the White House in 2020.

Democrats have shown strength in Wisconsin in recent years — Walker lost his bid for a third term to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in 2018, and Democratic candidates for Congress won 14 of the 23 counties that voted for both former President Obama and President Trump.

But off-year, under-the-radar races tend to feature older, whiter and more conservative electorates, all indications that should be good for Republicans. The race will gauge whether Democratic enthusiasm, which scored the party wins in special elections and control of Congress last year, remains, or if it has waned.

“Spring races have traditionally been tough for us because the electorates are older and more conservative. Judge Neubauer is not well-known and has some real vulnerabilities,” said Joe Zepecki, a Wisconsin Democratic strategist. “No one can take it for granted.”

Hagedorn has struggled to earn outside support.

Prominent groups that usually fund conservative Supreme Court candidates, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have so far declined to get involved. The Wisconsin Realtors Association, which has spent heavily on prior races, withdrew their endorsement and asked Hagedorn to refund their contribution after public reports about his controversial anti-gay views.

Hagedorn’s prior writings, including his opinion that a state might have the constitutional right to declare its own religion, have dominated coverage of the race, to his detriment. He has distanced himself from some of his previous opinions, writing in a statement to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that states may not establish their own religions “under current doctrine.”

Hagedorn has said he is being targeted for his religious beliefs. Others see a more marked schism between the two pillars of Wisconsin’s Republican base: social conservatives and those who care more about business regulations.

“It kind of plays up the internal divide within the Republican Party between social conservatives and business conservatives,” said James Wigderson, editor of the conservative RightWisconsin blog. “This is a case where the social conservatives were really let down.”

The race is a crucial milestone in the broader fight to control the court.

The retiring Abrahamson is a member of the court’s liberal wing, and if Neubauer wins her seat it would preserve the court’s 4-3 conservative majority. The next state Supreme Court seat up for election, held by conservative Justice Daniel Kelly, will come up for a vote on the same day as the Wisconsin Democratic presidential primary.

“You’ll have every Democrat turning out in the state to pick their presidential candidate, and you can understand why conservatives and Republicans are very nervous about control of the court,” Wigderson said. “Kelly’s going to be facing a tsunami of Democratic voters.”

The difference between a conservative majority and a liberal majority mattered over the last decade, as the court upheld much of Walker’s agenda. In the next decade, the fight between Democrat Evers and the Republican-led state legislature over congressional and legislative district lines is likely to be the most significant legal fight.

State Supreme Court races are ostensibly nonpartisan affairs, but Wisconsin watchers say that began to change over the last dozen years.

In 2008, a Republican-backed candidate, Michael Gableman, beat out Justice Louis Butler, who had been appointed by then-Gov. Jim Doyle (D). After Walker’s election in 2010 and his effort to pass Act 10, a measure that targeted state unions, a 2011 race between Justice David Prosser, who came to be seen as a Walker proxy, and Democratic-backed JoAnne Kloppenburg came down to a recount. 

In 2018, Democrats and Republicans poured millions into a race that more liberal Justice Rebecca Dallet won by 11 points, a veritable landslide in a state President Trump won by just under 23,000 votes.

“These were nonpartisan elections, but only in a technical sense. So many cues are given to voters,” said Joe Zepecki, a Democratic strategist in Wisconsin. “What you had starting after 2011 was a more explicit politicization.”

Democrats — like Holder’s group — contend that Wisconsin is badly gerrymandered. Democratic candidates for Congress won 53 percent of the statewide vote in 2018, but they hold only three of eight seats in the congressional delegation.

“This is largely a race about redistricting. If Democrats get control of the state Supreme Court, when you have a divided government the way we have now, redistricting is going to be very contentious,” Wigderson said. “If it ends up in court, it could end up in the state Supreme Court.”