Liberal's concession in Wisconsin race boosts GOP confidence

April 11, 2019

FILE - In this March 15, 2019 file photo, Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Brian Hagedorn speaks during a debate with opponent Lisa Neubauer at the Wisconsin State Bar Center in Madison, Wis. Neubauer conceded Wednesday to Brian Hagedorn.

MADISON The liberal candidate's concession Wednesday in Wisconsin's Supreme Court race gave Republicans a boost of confidence following a string of losses heading into the 2020 presidential campaign.

The closely watched court race was an early measure of the mood in the battleground state, although its predictive value is limited. Past Supreme Court contests have not always been accurate previews of what will happen in fall elections with larger turnout.

At the very least, the narrow victory by conservative candidate Brian Hagedorn over his liberal opponent Lisa Neubauer showed once again that the margin for either side in Wisconsin is razor-thin. Neubauer conceded to Hagedorn eight days after the election, with his lead at about half a percentage point.

Hagedorn won by about 6,000 votes. County canvassing of the vote was ongoing, but Neubauer conceded after the majority of counties were done and the totals moved less than 200 votes.

The Supreme Court race is just the latest in a series of tight elections in Wisconsin, reinforcing its status as a battleground state heading into 2020 and part of a "blue wall" including Michigan and Pennsylvania that Democrats are trying to build to beat President Donald Trump.

Other than Barack Obama's two wins, the past three presidential elections in Wisconsin have been decided by just a few thousand votes. Trump carried Wisconsin by less than 1 percentage point, or about 23,000 votes, in 2016. In 2000 and 2004, the Democratic nominees won by about 5,700 votes and 11,000 votes.

In 2018, Republican Gov. Scott Walker lost by just over 1 point to Democrat Tony Evers. The Democratic attorney general candidate, Josh Kaul, also won by less than a point.

While Republicans were excited by Hagedorn's win, past Supreme Court races haven't always been accurate indicators of future elections.

Last year, the liberal Supreme Court candidate cruised to victory in April, foreshadowing more narrow Democratic victories in the midterm elections. However, in 2007 and 2008 conservative candidates won Supreme Court races, victories that came in between huge Democratic wins in the fall of 2006 and the 2008 presidential election.

Hagedorn's win seems to fit that model, coming after Republicans lost every statewide race in 2018.

Turnout is another factor that limits the predictive quality of Wisconsin Supreme Court races.

Nearly 27 percent turned out to vote last week, which is above the average of around 20 percent for most spring elections. Still, that's less than half of what turnout has historically been for presidential elections. It was 66 percent in 2016 and that was the lowest turnout for a presidential election in 20 years.

Democrats and Republicans poured money into the officially nonpartisan race, with television ads at the end comparing the attacks against the conservative candidate to what was lodged against U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Neubauer attributed her defeat to more than $1.2 million in outside money that came into the race from Republicans to attack her. She also benefited from more than $1 million in outside spending, including about $350,000 from a group run by former Democratic U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

"I hope future races see less influence from outside special interests," Neubauer said. "(Hagedorn) said that he was running to get partisan influences out of our courts, and I hope he lives up to his promise."

Hagedorn, in a message to supporters Wednesday, said he "meant every word" when he said during the campaign that partisan politics has no place in the Supreme Court. He also thanked supporters for their hard work and prayers.

"Together, we made history," Hagedorn said.

In a nod to the national significance of the race, Trump tweeted congratulations to Hagedorn, calling it a "big surprise win" in a "very important Supreme Court seat."

Hagedorn's victory increases the conservative majority on Wisconsin's Supreme Court to 5-2. A liberal win would have given them a chance to take the majority next year. Now conservatives will have it until at least 2023.


Court sides with Wisconsin governor in appointment fight

MADISON A Wisconsin appeals court sided with Democratic Gov. Tony Evers on Tuesday, ruling that he had the authority to withdraw appointments made by then-Gov. Scott Walker and approved by Republicans during a lame-duck legislative session.

The state's 3rd District Court of Appeals declined to reinstate the 15 appointees as Republicans wanted. The court said Evers' rescinding of the appointments was not invalidated by a later court ruling that put on hold the decision that allowed him to take the action.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald promised an immediate appeal to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which is controlled 4-3 by conservatives.

"As the governor has repeatedly said, he acted properly and within the law to withdraw those improper appointments and make his own valid appointments," Evers' spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said in reaction to the ruling.

Hours before the ruling came out, Fitzgerald said that Republicans were "pretty wild" with anger over Evers' decision to revoke the appointments and may not vote on confirming his Cabinet secretaries while the court battle continues.

The position by the Senate's top Republican highlighted the deep divide between Republicans who control the Legislature and the newly elected governor. The Senate has not acted to confirm any of Evers' Cabinet picks while courts settle legal issues stemming from a lame-duck session in which Republicans pushed through several measures weakening the powers of Evers and Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul.

"I think some of those Cabinet members are going to be in trouble," Fitzgerald said, declining to name those who may be in greater jeopardy than others.

Evers said he did not see Fitzgerald's comments as retribution over the lame-duck legal fight, but rather "huffing and puffing."

"This will be resolved at some point in time," Evers told reporters. "Whether it's retribution or not, it's not going to work. First of all, the work of the state has to go on whether it's retribution or not."

Evers' Cabinet secretaries are working while their confirmations by the Senate are pending. If they are rejected, they would have to quit working.

The fight goes back to the lame-duck session Republicans called for December, after Evers had defeated Walker but before he took office. Republicans approved 82 Walker appointments, in addition to passing a number of power-stripping laws.

Evers rescinded all of those appointments last month after a court invalidated actions during the lame-duck session as unconstitutional. He re-appointed all but 15 of them. Days later, an appeals court put that ruling on hold, creating more confusion about the status of the 15 people Evers did not reappoint.

Evers argues the posts are vacant while Republicans say they should be allowed to return to work.

The 3rd District Court of Appeals on Tuesday said Evers was valid in voiding the appointments, noting that the order granting a stay "does not explicitly direct the governor to allow them to continue in their positions."

However, it said if a court ultimately rules the original appointments were constitutional, Evers' withdrawal of them could be voided.

Those who were not reappointed include Public Service Commissioner Ellen Nowak and University of Wisconsin Regent Scott Beightol. The Evers' administration denied Nowak access to her building when she tried to return to work. The Regents took a different approach, allowing Beightol and student Regent Torrey Tiedeman to attend the board's meeting last week.

Fitzgerald said Tuesday that some senators were ready to reject some of Evers Cabinet appointments in reaction to his decision to rescind the appointments.

"All I can tell you is people are upset," Fitzgerald said.

Republicans were particularly angry with Nowak being denied entrance to the PSC building, he said. She is former secretary of the Department of Administration and well-known to Republican lawmakers, many of whom are personal friends with her, Fitzgerald said.

He said that Nowak was given the "bum's rush."

Fitzgerald spoke to reporters in his office after Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling accused Republicans of not taking action on Evers' Cabinet picks as payback over the lawsuits related to the lame-duck session.

Fitzgerald quickly adjourned the Senate session after Shilling spoke, denying other senators the customary time to speak about whatever topic they wish.

Neubauer concedes  in Wisconsin Supreme Court race

MADISON, Wis. The liberal candidate in Wisconsin's Supreme Court race conceded Wednesday, deciding against a recount eight days after the election showed her conservative opponent ahead by 6,000 votes in a race seen as an early measure of a key battleground in the 2020 presidential campaign.

Lisa Neubauer's concession to Brian Hagedorn means the conservative majority on the court will increase from 4-3 to 5-2 when he takes the seat in August. Conservatives will hold control until at least 2023, denying liberals a change to take the majority in next year's election.

The Hagedorn win also gives Republicans a boost of confidence heading into the 2020 presidential election year, with his victory coming after a string of stinging losses last year.

Republicans and Democrats alike pointed to the thin margin as a sign of how hotly contested Wisconsin will be in 2020. The tight race came after Republican Scott Walker lost the governor's race by just over a point in 2018 and President Donald Trump carried Wisconsin by just under a point in 2016.

Liberals were optimistic they could win the seat, especially after a Democratic-backed candidate won in 2018 and Democrats swept statewide elections in November, most notably ousting Walker.

Neubauer got out to an early fundraising lead and appeared to have the momentum, until a surge of more than $1 million from Republican groups poured into the state in the final week of the race making the argument that Hagedorn was being unfairly criticized for his Christian beliefs.

President Donald Trump tweeted congratulations to Hagedorn, calling it a "big surprise win" in a "very important Supreme Court seat."

Neubauer said in a Wednesday statement that the late burst of outside money against her was the difference-maker in the race. She also benefited from more than $1 million in outside spending.

"I hope future races see less influence from outside special interests," Neubauer said. "He said that he was running to get partisan influences out of our courts, and I hope he lives up to his promise."

Neubauer called Hagedorn on Wednesday morning to concede and wish him good luck. Canvassing from the majority of Wisconsin's counties showed a change of less than 200 votes in the total, both campaigns said.

The race was the closest for Wisconsin Supreme Court since 2011, when Justice David Prosser won by just over 7,000 votes, or four-tenths of a point.

Unofficial results showed Neubauer trailing by just under half a percentage point. That is within the 1-point margin for a recount, but Neubauer would have had to pay for it because it wasn't within the quarter of a point margin to make it free.

Hagedorn, 41, is a former member of the Kenosha County Republican Party and served as a law clerk for state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, whose victory in 2008 gave conservatives control of the court. Hagedorn served as an assistant attorney general, worked in private practice and was Walker's chief legal counsel for nearly five years. Walker appointed him to the state appeals court in 2015 and Hagedorn won election two years later.

Hagedorn was endorsed by the National Rifle Association and Wisconsin Right to Life.

Hagedorn will serve a 10-year term and replace retiring liberal Justice Shirley Abrahamson, who is battling cancer. A former chief justice, the 85-year-old Abrahamson is the longest-serving member of the court, now in her 43rd year.



Associated Press