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Wisconsin conservatives cement outsize power in a state that went blue just last year

Democrats nationwide should pay attention to the results of the state-level election.

Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate Tony Evers Campaigns With Wisconsin Democrats
Wisconsin voters listen to now-Gov. Tony Evers during his 2018 race.
Darren Hauck/Getty Images

Wisconsin Democrats’ winning streak abruptly ended this week with a state Supreme Court election that likely means mean Republicans will have outsize power in the state for many years ahead.

On Wednesday, liberal Lisa Neubauer conceded the race for a Wisconsin Supreme Court seat to conservative Brian Hagedorn, cementing Republicans’ control of the state’s top court until at least 2023. The outcome of this race is of major consequence to Democratic leaders in the state, who, after ousting Republican Gov. Scott Walker in November in a major victory, saw the state’s Republican legislature strip powers from elected Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in a lame-duck session.

For the past four months since taking power, Democrats have had to fight in the courts for their right to govern. They’ve had some big wins in the lower courts, but this state Supreme Court race is a major defeat.

In January, a federal judge struck down Wisconsin Republicans’ law restricting early voting, a key component of the bills Walker signed in his last days in office. And in March, a state circuit court judge ruled unconstitutional the laws Republicans passed curbing Evers’s ability to change policies around welfare, health care, and economic development; stripping him of key appointments; and limiting the attorney general’s powers. Republican state leaders promised to appeal the ruling and take it to the state’s Supreme Court, which is now firmly in the hands of conservatives.

At its core, this is a story about power grabs. Despite losing the popular vote in 2018, Wisconsin Republicans still control both chambers of the state legislature and five of its eight congressional seats; it’s the product of some aggressive gerrymandering that diverges from the state’s reputation as a political battleground. There was hope that the 2020 census would be an opportunity for the state to turn the page away from the partisan play. But with conservatives cementing their power over the state’s top court, Wisconsin Republicans have shown they’re only tightening their grasp.

As similar stories of lame-duck power grabs have played out in states like Michigan and North Carolina, this latest development in Wisconsin should serve as a warning sign for Democrats throughout the country.

It’s hard to overstate how big a loss this is for Wisconsin Democrats

Hagedorn won by about 6,000 votes in last week’s race, which saw 1.2 million ballots cast — about half of a percentage point — to replace liberal Justice Shirley Abrahamson and increase the conservative majority on the seven-person Court from 4–3 to 5–2.

The road back to a liberal majority on the court will be tenuous, not to mention long: In 2020, Democrats would need to oust a Walker-appointed justice, and in 2023, they would also need to defeat the current conservative Chief Justice Patience Roggensack, who has served on the Court since 2003. Both candidates will likely have the might of the state’s Republican Party behind them, and have the advantage of being incumbents.

That’s not to say it’s impossible: After President Donald Trump won Wisconsin in 2016, the state’s Democrats have been showing their power in elections. In early 2018, liberal Rebecca Dallet won election to the Wisconsin Supreme Court by a huge margin, which signaled to Republican strategists that they had to energize their voters in the state. Their efforts weren’t enough for the midterm elections, when Democrats swept statewide races. As Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern wrote, there were signs the blue wave would continue with Neubauer amid reports of Hagedorn’s long anti-LGBTQ record, which cost him major endorsements.

But Neubauer’s loss shows how shows how volatile the Democratic wave can be.

Unlike in 2018, when Dallet had the strength of the blue wave behind her and got endorsements from national leaders, the big names in the party were notably absent this year. Big money, on the other hand, wasn’t. This year’s contest was one of the most expensive Supreme Court races in recent history, in large part because Republicans weren’t taking any chances. The Republican State Leadership Committee spent $1.2 million in just the final week.

It’s clear that Republicans saw the stakes of this election — and the result was a state-level win that will impact the state’s politics for years to come. A conservative majority on the Supreme Court means the Republican state legislature will likely succeed in its power grab against Evers and his Democratic administration. It means that Republican-passed laws that Democrats campaigned against — and won doing so — likely won’t see much action in state court.

And it means the state maps that allowed Republicans to keep majorities in both state legislative chambers despite losing the popular vote will persist even with the new census.