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Brian Hagedorn declares victory: What that means for the Wisconsin Supreme Court and its next election

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Hagedorn wrap up

In this March 15, 2019 photo, Brian Hagedorn speaks during a debate with opponent Lisa Neubauer at the Wisconsin State Bar Center in Madison. Hagedorn has declared victory in his tight race with Neubauer, but the race appears to be headed for a recount. 

Judge Brian Hagedorn declared victory Tuesday night in what proved to be a tight run for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, but the race appears headed for a recount. 

With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Hagedorn had 50.25 percent of the vote over fellow Court of Appeals Judge Lisa Neubauer's 49.75 percent, a difference of 5,962 votes. That difference is within the margin for Neubauer to request a recount under Wisconsin law, but her campaign would have to pay for it. It signaled Tuesday night that it would. 

The race is too close to call and was "most assuredly headed to a recount," said Neubauer campaign manager Tyler Hendricks in a statement Tuesday. 

"We are going to make sure every vote is counted. Wisconsinites deserve to know we have had a fair election and that every vote is counted," he said. 

Hagedorn, who trailed in fundraising throughout the race and saw two key Republican groups pull their endorsements of him, was boosted by late donations and canvassing from several outside conservative groups that mobilized their base. Americans for Prosperity said it knocked on 40,000 doors and American Majority Action said it knocked on 15,000 doors.

"Our margin of victory is insurmountable," said Hagedorn in a statement. “I am deeply humbled and honored by the voters who have placed their trust in me to serve as Wisconsin’s next Supreme Court justice."

If Hagedorn's votes hold, it means that conservatives maintain a strong majority on the court at 5-2, for at least four years. Hagedorn would replace retiring liberal Justice Shirley Abrahamson. Democrats will gear up for another heated race next year, when conservative Justice Dan Kelly is up for re-election. Liberals would have to flip that seat just to try to wrangle control of the court for the following election, in 2023. 

As state Supreme Court races have gotten more political, turnout for these races, which always happen in the spring, have increased. 

Turnout was higher in Tuesday's Supreme Court race than last year's. Turnout in 2018 was the highest since 2011, omitting 2016 which had a presidential primary that year, according to Charles Franklin, who runs the Marquette Law School Poll. 

With 99 percent of precincts reporting, turnout in Wisconsin's Supreme Court election was close to 27 percent: 1.2 million out of the nearly 4.5 million voting age population cast ballots, according to the Associated Press. 

Conservatives typically fare better in spring elections, observers agree.

"Whatever the outcome is, the electorate is going to be older, whiter and more conservative. That's just who shows up to these races," said Mike Browne, deputy director of the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now. 

And mobilizing those voters is always key, said Ryan Owens, a professor of political science at UW-Madison and director of the Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership on campus. 

"Whoever mobilizes is going to be able to get there, get the victory. That shouldn't be a huge shock. I think every election is like that," he said.

Though more than $2.8 million was spent by outside groups for both Hagedorn and Neubauer, with seven-figure ad buys for candidates in the final weeks, conservative groups say it was their aggressive canvassing that translated to Hagedorn's success.

"Grassroots enthusiasm and activism in the final stretch catapulted Hagedorn to victory," said Eric Bott, president of Americans for Prosperity in Wisconsin. The group spent about $202,260 supporting Hagedorn in the final days of the race. "I did not see the same level of activity from his opposition that I saw last November or in April 2018."

American Majority Action, a conservative advocacy group, targeted voters in Brown, Marathon, Sheboygan, Ozaukee and Waukesha Counties, said Matt Batzel, national executive director of the group, who is based in Wisconsin. Batzel called a Hagedorn victory a "springboard for Trump's re-election in 2020."

Hagedorn saw gains over Michael Screnock, the previous conservative candidate for the court, in several counties, Batzel said. In a race where the margin of victory is about 5,000 votes, hundreds of votes across small cities make a difference.

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In Marathon County Hagedorn won with 59 percent of the vote after Screnock lost the county with 49.5 percent. In Oostburg in Sheboygan County, Hagedorn won 950 votes to Neubauer's 113, getting about 400 more votes than Screnock in the last race. In the city of Sheboygan Falls, Hagedorn won by 328 votes after Screnock lost it by 46 in 2018, Batzel said. 

But even with a Hagedorn victory, this race shows how much attitudes in Wisconsin have shifted on LGBTQ issues, said Joanna Beilman-Dulen, research director for One Wisconsin Now, which pounded Hagedorn with criticism throughout the campaign for his college era writings on gay marriage and his role in a private Christian school that bars homosexual behavior for students, teaches and parents.

"2006 the state was passing an amendment to the state Constitution defining marriage between one man and one woman,"she said. "This year, you've got the Wisconsin Realtors Association and the US Chamber of Commerce not participating in the conservative side. They have let a lot go. This is like they didn't have the stomach for it anymore. That is a significant development regardless of the outcome of the election." 

But those attacks could have backfired, Owens and other conservatives say, energizing Republican voters who agreed that the attacks unfairly cut to the core of Hagedorn's evangelical Christian faith. 

"It could be that a lot of people perceive this to be a part of a broader attack on the evangelical or Christian right," Owens said. "It could be that it galvanizes his base."

"The conservative grassroots were mobilized and energized more than any Supreme Court race that I have seen since 2011. They were motivated by recent losses and the smears on Hagedorn's Christian faith," American Majority Action's Batzel said.

Liberals and conservatives largely agree that the election is another example of just how closely divided politics are in Wisconsin today. 

"State Supreme Court elections are always important, and 2020 is just as important today as it was yesterday," said Browne. 



Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.