GOP base wakes up in Wisconsin

Wisconsin voters on Tuesday delivered a stinging defeat to Democrats hoping to hold a seat on the state Supreme Court — and a hint that a sleeping Republican base is beginning to wake up just in time for the 2020 presidential election.

Just weeks ago, Democrats believed their preferred candidate, Judge Lisa Neubauer, was the heavy favorite. Her opponent, Judge Brian Hagedorn, a conservative former aide to ex-Gov. Scott Walker (R), spent nearly the entire race defending himself from attacks over blog posts he wrote that laid out controversial views of gay rights and public religion.

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Several prominent groups that usually back conservative judicial candidates distanced themselves from Hagedorn. At the same time, liberal groups pumped more than $3 million into television ads backing Neubauer. 

Hagedorn trailed even in internal Republican surveys. One poll conducted by the Republican State Leadership Committee a week before Election Day found Neubauer leading 42 percent to 34 percent.

But voters on Tuesday gave Hagedorn a slim lead of about 5,900 votes, out of almost 1.2 million cast. Hagedorn has declared victory, though the race is so close that Neubauer has the option to request a recount.

The results show a Republican base that is becoming more interested in and energized by politics, cutting into an enthusiasm gap that has fueled Democratic wins since President TrumpDonald John TrumpPompeo changes staff for Russia meeting after concerns raised about top negotiator's ties: report House unravels with rise of 'Les Enfants Terrible' Ben Carson: Trump is not a racist and his comments were not racist MORE was sworn into office.

For two years, Democratic anger at Trump has translated into wins at the polls. The party picked up more than a dozen Republican-held state legislative seats in special elections, a Wisconsin Supreme Court seat last year, and sweeping midterm election wins across the country, including in Wisconsin, where Democrat Tony Evers beat Walker.

The Democratic energy still exists — Neubauer, the liberal candidate, won 45,000 more votes than did Justice Rebecca Dallet, the liberal who won last year’s race.

But among the 200,000 voters who cast a ballot this year after sitting out last year, the vast majority appear to have broken for Hagedorn. He took 160,000 more votes than the conservative candidate who lost to Dallet last year.

“The idea that the conservative grass roots was able to power a victory like this, when Hagedorn was outspent by as much as he was for as long as he was, is incredible,” said Brian Reisinger, a Republican strategist in Wisconsin and a former Walker adviser.

Though liberal groups outspent conservatives, more than $1 million in late spending from the Republican State Leadership Committee poured into Wisconsin in the final weeks. The RSLC targeted Republican voters who often sat out low-turnout spring elections, sending 1.2 million text messages and running digital ads.

Four mailers landed on Republican doorsteps in Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties — the so-called WOW counties that ring Milwaukee, where Republicans need to drive up turnout to succeed statewide.

In each of those three counties, liberal Neubauer improved on Dallet’s performance from a year ago — but Hagedorn improved on the conservative’s performance far more, by almost 30 percent. His improvement in Waukesha County alone, of about 22,000 votes, was almost four times his winning margin statewide.

Turnout improved in Democratic strongholds of Milwaukee and Madison as well — Neubauer beat Dallet’s vote totals in both cities — but by far smaller margins.

“Clearly, Republicans got their base activated this year in a way they didn’t last year,” said Joe Zepecki, a Democratic strategist in Wisconsin. “No one should be under any impression that progressives fell asleep on this race.”

The results underscore what should be obvious by now: Wisconsin is a closely divided state at the tipping point of either party’s path to 270 electoral votes.

In the last 20 years, a race as close as Tuesday’s contest was far more likely than a blowout for either party. In presidential, Senate and gubernatorial contests since the beginning of the century, only three politicians — former President Obama, Sen. Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinThe Hill's Morning Report - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Planned Parenthood ousts its president | Harris releases drug pricing plan | House Dem drug plan delayed until after recess Health care needs transparency, and President Trump is making progress MORE (D) and former Sen. Herb Kohl (D) — have won statewide elections by double-digit margins.

Four of those elections — the 2000, 2004 and 2016 presidential contests and Evers’s win over Walker — have been decided by margins of 1 percentage point or less.

“The norm in Wisconsin is really close statewide elections,” Zepecki said. “Here we are again, we’ve got another tied race.”

The Republican enthusiasm came as something of a perfect storm. With their candidate under assault for his views on religion in the public square and gay rights, Hagedorn’s backers promoted mailings that equated the conservative candidate with President Trump, and Trump’s nominees to the Supreme Court.

“They did it against Justice [Brett] Kavanaugh,” one mailer read. “Now, the same radical out-of-state special interest groups that are spending millions pushing Liberal Lisa Neubauer are spreading false attacks against conservative, rule of law Judge Brian Hagedorn.”

Three years after Trump became the first Republican to win Wisconsin since Ronald Reagan in 1984, Democrats already planned a renewed focus on rebuilding their Midwestern blue wall. The 2018 midterms showed Democrats the path to winning — and the 2019 spring elections showed Republicans their version.

“What Hagedorn shows is that the conservative grass roots can help fuel a victory, and that Republicans can still win across the rural and suburban coalition that put us on the map in Wisconsin,” Reisinger said. “But we've got to do just that — we can't have a part of that coalition wane or drop off in 2020, because the explosive Madison turnout we've seen of late will swamp us.”