Right wing takes Wisconsin court seat in a strident hate campaign
Brian Hagedorn | AP

Across the Illinois-Wisconsin border April 2, the contrast couldn’t have been starker. While Chicago elected its new mayor Lori Lightfoot, a black former prosecutor who is also gay, the Wisconsin Supreme Court contest, in results still being challenged, nipped into office the Scott Walker appointee who compared homosexuality to bestiality and three months ago was laughed at by historic conservative money centers as too extreme for consideration.

Brian Hagedorn, the appeals judge appointed by Walker, was nowhere in the public mind and public polls as 2019 began. Traditional GOP supporters like Wisconsin Realtors and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce closed their wallets in dismay.

Yet he seems to have edged (by under 6,000 votes out of 1.2 million) his respected fellow appeals court chief judge, Lisa Neubauer, who until recently was praised even by leading conservatives as “one of those sensible Democrats.”

If his win holds up, it is doubly depressing for Democrats since he will replace for a 10-year term one of the most respected jurists in Wisconsin history, Shirley Abrahamson, and give the court an insurmountable 5-2 conservative majority with only one supreme court race on the horizon in the next three years. That also means that new Democratic governor Tony Evers will have an even harder slog to improve the state with a conservative high court breathing down his neck on every decision.

While April election results around the nation continued the progressive wave that put Evers in office and showed the power of female candidates, this result suggests Wisconsin may be more open to Trump behavior than national Democrats want to admit.

Many areas of the state show a hard resistance to liberal policies – largely rural and largely in regions that engaged decades ago in “white flight” from the cities. It also has a GOP legislature enshrined by rank gerrymandering.

It was also a statistically dumbfounding result, which explains the hot calls for a recount and why official canvassers will be tightly watched next week to do more than just churn ballots through voting machines.

Neubauer drew some 40,000 more votes than the liberal Rebecca Dallet did a year ago in her supreme court win, but Hagedorn in northern and western Wisconsin was improving 17 to 20 percentage points over Dallet’s opponent. Worse is strong evidence that religious conservatism played a hefty role in his turnout, leaving some precincts with curiously heavy turnout compared to their past.

Those emerging figures also suggest an outrageous susceptibility to negative advertising, since that was the main component of Hagedorn’s campaign.  There was an anti-Christian and virulent-Democrat aura painted around Neubauer despite her refusal to engage in political rhetoric.  But she did engage in debates and ads criticizing Hagedorn’s adult writings and whether he could keep his conservative stridency out of court decisions.

That played up by the Hagedorn camp, seems to have roused the beast. Homosexuality, laced with Christian right viewpoints, right now seems the decider. Former governor Walker’s GOP machine went into high gear for his former aide. The Republican State Leadership Committee and Americans for Prosperity raised $1.2 million in ad money (an early count) for a three-week ad blitz.

These outside groups filled the airwaves and the Internet with bluntly extreme ads claiming Neubauer was a tool of Nancy Pelosi, George Soros and other bogeymen of the left though her appeals court career was so impressive that many conservatives now supporting Hagedorn had spoken favorably of her.  That was then. Today, a known political operative, Hagedorn, can paint Neubauer with the bias brush reserved for him.

Hagedorn was appointed to the appeals court after helping then Gov. Walker write and pass Act 10 and other legislative horrors. He played sometimes smirking but always victimized Boy Scout in his ads, talking the law and order walk and noting how he had adopted years ago a child suffering from opioid abuse, an event he used as a political prop. No one would have known of the child’s past without his public ad pronouncement.

Neubauer on a 20-year record is one of the least politically active public servants in the state.  Though her family is Democratic, her husband a former legislator and one daughter a current one, she rejected any political context in her ads, even objecting when Eric Holder’s national gerrymandering organization (NDRC) gave money and time to her campaign.  She immediately announced she would recuse in any cases brought before her by that group.

After the election results, armchair critics say her ads were too bland in avoiding politics and projecting her fair and impartial reputation. In hindsight, her refusal to talk about anything other than a judicial temperament played right into his ad approach. Hagedorn, an evangelical Christian, spent much of the race defending his conservative beliefs, calling Planned Parenthood a wicked organization and labeling Neubauer as a lefty extremist and political pawn.

The polluted view was everywhere, not just right-wing talk shows but “West Wing” excerpts on YouTube and on cable and Wisconsin TV. Lawn signs for Hagedorn popped up on roadways and empty homes.  It was the sort of out of nowhere ad blitz that most consumers should be immediately suspicious of. But the negative ad ploy worked outside the blue domains of Milwaukee and Madison that giggled at the extremism of the ads.  They are not laughing today. The right-wing voter machine so prominent in spring primaries turned out in full force.

One irony, of course, is that these are supposed to be the nonpartisan races — the welcome breather from the toxic political campaigns of the fall. There is now so much red vs. blue that no judicial contest in the state can escape. In Milwaukee, it worked in reverse.  A fine former public defender, Danielle Shelton, won her circuit court race from Andrew Jones, largely because he was a Walker appointee.

Though judicial contests are nominally nonpartisan, Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party, immediately hailed Hagedorn’s showing as sending a “message to all of America that we’re ready to keep Wisconsin red as we turn our attention to mobilizing for 2020 and re-electing President Trump.”


Dominique Paul Noth
Dominique Paul Noth

Dominique Paul Noth for the past decade was editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and website, milwaukeelabor.org. He now writes as an independent journalist on culture and politics.