The race for state Supreme Court that could weigh heavily on the future of the state's judiciary was too close to call and possibly headed for a recount Tuesday night.
The results, reminiscent of the razor-thin margins of the 2018 governor's race and the 2011 Supreme Court race that ended in a recount, show the conservative-backed Appeals Court Judge Brian Hagedorn with a lead of 50.24 percent to 49.76 percent over the liberal-backed Wisconsin Chief Appeals Court Judge Lisa Neubauer, with 99 percent of precincts reporting.
Conservative-backed Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley told attendees at Hagedorn's watch party that victory was imminent.
Meanwhile, Neubauer's campaign manager, Tyler Hendricks, said in a statement the campaign is likely to request a recount.
"This race is too close to call," Hendricks said. "We are almost assuredly headed to a recount. 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."
A recount is not off the table. The loser must be within one percentage point of the winner to request a recount. If the loser is within 0.25 percentage points of the winner, that candidate may request a recount at no cost.
In 2011, the liberal-backed JoAnne Kloppenburg conceded defeat to conservative incumbent Justice David Prosser after a recount showed his lead stood at 7,004 votes, or just 0.46 percent of the votes cast.
Kloppenberg actually declared victory the day after the election after preliminary results suggested she won by about 200 votes.
At stake in the race is control of the court in 2020. If Neubauer were to replace retiring liberal-backed Justice Shirley Abrahamson for a seat on the court, liberals would only have to defeat conservative-backed Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly in 2020 to seize control of the seven-seat body.
The race for the state's highest court is officially nonpartisan, but partisan groups on either end of the political spectrum have lined up in typical fashion to support their favored candidate.
Outside electioneering groups have spent about $2.8 million in the race, according to the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. Six mostly liberal groups have spent about $1.6 million backing Neubauer while five mostly conservative groups have spent about $1.2 million supporting Hagedorn.
Conservative groups in the final week leading up to the election made a last-minute push for Hagedorn, one of which paid for a seven-figure media campaign slamming Neubauer.
The outside spending is in addition to the money candidates raised themselves. Over the complete course of the campaign, Neubauer has raised about $1.7 million and Hagedorn brought in about $1.3 million.
Voters Tuesday had a choice between two different approaches to the law. Neubauer portrayed herself as a time-tested legal mind who would bring an impartial and independent view to the law, while Hagedorn said he would work to extinguish partisanship on the court and take a modest approach that would prevent the court from becoming another type of Legislature.
But political partisans see the stakes even higher. Conservatives view a Neubauer victory as a way to allow liberal special interests to invade the court, while liberals say Hagedorn, whose views on LGBT issues and work for former Gov. Scott Walker have stoked criticism, would usher in a disrespect for rights that the court should protect.
For liberals, quashing the court's conservative majority would mean eliminating the same court that upheld some of the most controversial laws of the past decade, notably Walker's signature Act 10 law, which limited the power of public sector labor unions.
Flipping the court could have major implications for the issues of partisan gerrymandering and voter rights.
Each judge's political connections run deep. Hagedorn served as Walker's chief legal counsel, where he had a role in drafting parts of Act 10, which limited the power of public sector labor unions.
Hagedorn espoused views against gay marriage and several other issues in a personal blog he kept more than a decade ago. In it he argued a U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down a Texas anti-sodomy law could lead to the legalization of bestiality.
He continues to be a board member of an academy in Waukesha County that employs a code of personal conduct that lists "immoral sexual activity" by teachers, staff, board members, students or their parents as grounds for dismissal. It defines immoral sexual activity as "any form of touching or nudity for the purpose of evoking sexual arousal apart from the context of marriage between one man and one woman."
Hagedorn also received more than $3,000 over three years from Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal organization that has supported criminalizing sodomy and sterilizing transgender people.
Hagedorn’s views on LGBT issues prompted the Wisconsin Realtors Association, an organization that represents the real estate industry and an influential underwriter of conservative-backed Supreme Court candidates, to withdraw its endorsement of Hagedorn and request its $18,000 donation back.
Meanwhile, Neubauer is married to the former chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, and has donated to Democrats, including former Gov. Jim Doyle. Her daughter serves as a Democratic state representative, and they have appeared together at a People’s Climate March, a protest against President Donald Trump’s environmental policies.