In April of this year, Republicans pulled off a major upset when conservative Judge Brian Hagedorn defeated liberal Judge Lisa Neubauer. The win represented a stunning success for the party after losing every statewide race last November and the prior Supreme Court contest by a whopping 12 points. More importantly, from a policy perspective, Hagedorn’s win was a flip (from blue to red) on the court and likely locked in a conservative majority until 2024.
The question is how did conservatives swing a 12.5 point difference from when Michael Screnock lost by 12 percent to Rebecca Dallet. Well, as is usual in politics, there is no single answer. Part of it was candidate quality, part of it was the individual dynamics of the race and part of it was intangibles. But, undoubtedly, a large part of it was Republicans and conservatives learning the lessons of 2018 and exploiting them in a fairly neutral (ie. not Democratic wave) environment.
Hagedorn, despite being a strong conservative, was attacked for starting a Christian school, and for not supporting Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood spent six figures to defeat him and because of the controversy, pro-GOP leaning business organizations decided to stay out of the race. Worse for Hagedorn, polling showed him behind, and liberal groups outspent conservative groups by 14-1 knowing the importance of the contest.
However, attacking Hagedorn over starting a school with the same value set was hardly a winning strategy. Likely, the attacks motivated the GOP base and reminded voters who may not like the President or split their votes in the midterms, of the worst aspects of the Democratic Party.
Neubauer, also, was hardly the best candidate to be sent to the court. She was a well established figure in the Democratic Party and strong supporter of Planned Parenthood. The attacks on Hagedorn likely reminded voters of just how far left she is on these issues, and again, motivated the GOP base to turn out.
For all the talk of the GOP being unable to to match Democratic strength in urban areas by increasing their margins in rural communities, Wisconsin showed they could. Democrats increased their margins from the 2018 Supreme Court race in Dane (Madison) and Milwaukee Counties. But, Hagedorn held serve in the Collar Counties (Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington), and more importantly, amassed bigger margins than former Governor Walker did in the North.
The lessons of Wisconsin’s contest have been overshadowed by the results of elections this November when Democrats retook the governorship in Kentucky (yet lost every other statewide contest – some they had held for decades), took the heavily suburban Virginia legislature (which was Democratic leaning due to court ordered redistricting) and held serve in Lousiana’s gubernatorial run-off (though the party lost every other statewide race and even more seats in the legislature).
But, few analysts, or voters for that matter, consider any of the three states to be swing states next year. State politics are fought over different issues and Democrats in Southern states in state level contests have a different brand than their federal counterparts.
However, Wisconsin, is a different story. Of any Midwestern state Trump poached from Democrats in 2016 it is the one most likely to back the President. Hagedorn’s election showed the GOP leaning Collar Counties are still sticking with the GOP and the party maintains its strength in rural areas. Democratic strength in urban areas only evens this out. It does not cancel it out.
Further, unlike in 2016, and more like in April, the Trump campaign will be organized and have a robust ground game. They will be targeting the same voters the party flipped in April. Further, they will have an actual Democratic nominee to attack.
Impeachment is the wild-card in the contest. But, a series of recent polls give Republicans good reasons for optimism. A NYT/Siena survey found the President leading or tied with every major Democratic contender. More recently, a Marquette University survey found the President also leading and a majority of voters opposing impeachment. If the President holds every state he won in 2016 and Wisconsin, he wins the Presidency, and doesn’t need Michigan or Wisconsin.
Democrats giddy about the results of their wave last year, and this November, would be wise to heed the lessons of November. Lest they be repeated.