The Wisconsin progressives of a century ago did not prevail in every election, but they maintained a winning average that defined what is best about this state. For the old-school progressives, there was never such a thing as a “small” contest, or an “off-year” election. If a progressive was running for village board or district attorney or state senator or a U.S. House seat or the presidency, activists were organizing their communities for “the cause.”
The founders of the Wisconsin progressive tradition were proud of their distinct, state-based movement for political and economic democracy. And they were proud of the political skills they developed and maintained in order to advance that movement. They never lost an election for lack of trying because they believed that every election — local, state or national; partisan or nonpartisan — was a moral crusade on behalf of a shared faith that “the will of the people shall be the law of the land.”
It is this faith that Wisconsin progressives must renew if there is to be any hope for a politics that will restore the honor and the promise of a state that embarrassed itself by helping to elect Donald Trump in 2016 — and that must not do the same in 2020.
Wisconsin is a battleground state and this is a make-or-break moment. Progressives have to recognize that this is when the future will be won or lost, not just for Wisconsin but for the country that this state has influenced in outsized ways for more than 170 years.
Everything is up for grabs. Wisconsin’s 2018 statewide elections showed what is possible: a rule-of-law progressive beat a right-wing judicial activist for the state Supreme Court in the spring and progressive Democrats won fall contests for U.S. senator, governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state and state treasurer. But Wisconsin’s only 2019 statewide election provided a reminder that the national right-wing groups that shored up former Gov. Scott Walker’s reign of error are not about to stop meddling in this state’s politics.
Judge Lisa Neubauer, the chief judge of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, had the temperament, the qualifications and the endorsements that would, traditionally, have ensured her election to replace Justice Shirley Abrahamson. Instead, Neubauer finished roughly 6,000 votes behind Brian Hagedorn, a legal henchman for Walker who got a courtesy appointment from the former governor to serve on the Appeals Court.
Hagedorn was never a credible contender for the Supreme Court. He refused to recognize a duty to recuse himself from deliberations involving anti-labor laws he helped shape as a fixer for Walker. And revelations about his crudely biased statements and support for anti-LGBTQ discrimination led business groups with long histories of backing conservative court candidates to abandon his candidacy.
Hagedorn had motivated allies, however. Out-of-state special-interest spending by groups flush with cash from right-wing billionaires, and by state and national Republican groups that want the high court to protect the partisan gerrymandering that has benefited the GOP over the past decade, funded a lavish last-minute campaign on Hagedorn’s behalf. As the officially nonpartisan April 2 election approached, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign reported that “Republican-leaning express advocacy groups have filed paperwork showing large, last-minute spending on broadcast and digital ads, mailings, and robocalls to support Hagedorn.” Lavish spending, well in excess of $1 million, went into a final media and mobilization push to get social conservatives to turn out for a candidate who they were assured would advance their agenda as an activist justice.
The outsiders were smart. Don’t blame them for taking advantage of the presumption on the part of pols and pundits that a Neubauer win was all but certain.
The blame for Neubauer’s dismal finish rests with the candidate, her campaign and Wisconsin progressives. The point here is not to pick on Neubauer — we endorsed her because she had the experience and the temperament to serve as an able justice.
The point is to make sure this never happens again.
The Supreme Court result, no matter how it might be influenced by a recount, is a sobering reminder for Wisconsin progressives. They once knew how to practice smart and effective politics in every corner of this state in every election.
They do not know how to do that now.
This does not mean that progressives are guaranteed losers. The statewide Democratic sweep in 2018 confirms that progressives can win big races, as do the 2019 results from local contests in places like Milwaukee, Madison, Oshkosh and Green Bay. But the Supreme Court numbers are a nightmare. While right-wing voting spiked — especially in the Lake Michigan counties north and south of Milwaukee — turnout was weak in Milwaukee and in the western Wisconsin counties that have historically provided a rural boost to progressives. And turnout was insufficient in Dane County.
Madison and Dane County pride themselves on their high levels of voter participation. But the April 2 turnout in the city and the county was 36.7 percent. That means that roughly two-thirds of voters stayed home. If the turnout in the county (where Neubauer led by a 4-1 margin) had been three percentage points higher, the superior candidate would have finished ahead on election night.
Progressives took their eye off the prize. They got overconfident. They failed to maintain the organization, the energy and the sense of ideological urgency that made all those 2018 wins possible. If they fail in 2020, they run the risk of handing the state and the nation to Donald Trump for another four years.
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