In Wisconsin’s gubernatorial race last year, Democrat Tony Evers defeated Scott Walker by one percent statewide — but won a majority of votes in only 36 of the state’s 99 Assembly districts. That same night, Democratic candidates won 53 percent of all ballots cast for the state Assembly, even as Republicans won a 27-seat majority in that body.
In other words: The 2018 midterms confirmed that the GOP has gerrymandered Wisconsin’s electoral maps so aggressively, it will be essentially impossible for the Democratic Party to gain control of that (purple) state’s legislature until its maps are redrawn.
This point was not lost on the Wisconsin GOP. Immediately following Evers’s victory, Republicans convened a special legislative session to transfer powers from the popularly elected branch of government that Democrats had just won to the undemocratically elected branch that the GOP couldn’t lose.
These developments forced Wisconsin Democrats to confront a harrowing possibility: that their triumph in the governor’s race would not stop the GOP from locking up the state legislature for another decade. In 2021, Wisconsin will redraw all its electoral maps to comport with the new census. And Evers will have the power to veto any gerrymander the legislature enacts. But Republicans could reject that veto, and bring a lawsuit claiming that the legislature has authority over redistricting. And if the conservative majority on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court buys that argument — just as it bought the GOP’s case for the constitutionality of voter-ID laws and union-busting measures (that likely cost Democrats the Badger State in 2016) — then it will be game over. And Democrats will be all but incapable of governing Wisconsin before 2030.
But there was one way out of this maddening impasse. In 2019 and 2020, Wisconsin would hold Supreme Court elections. And if liberal judges could win both those contests — which would be settled by the good old-fashioned popular vote — then Democrats would ensure their influence over redistricting. And not only that: A liberal State Supreme Court could also roll back the GOP legislature’s power grab, its various voter-suppression efforts, and perhaps even its assault on collective-bargaining rights.
What’s more, liberals were in prime position to win the 2020 Supreme Court election, as it would be held the same day as the state’s presidential primaries — when Democrats are expected to turn out in far larger numbers than Republicans, since their party’s nomination will be hotly contested, while Donald Trump is all but certain to win renomination in a cakewalk.
So, to liberate Wisconsin from anti-democratic rule, all Democrats really had to worry about was winning this year’s Supreme Court election. And in a rare stroke of luck, Wisconsin conservatives managed to rally behind a reactionary judge so extreme, two of the GOP’s most reliable donors — the state’s Chamber of Commerce and Realtors Association — could not bring themselves to support him. Specifically, Judge Brian Hagedorn had written that the NAACP was a “disgrace to America,” and that homosexual intercourse should be a criminal offense because the “idea that homosexual behavior is different than bestiality as a constitutional matter is unjustifiable.” The judge had also recently cofounded a K-8 Christian school in the Milwaukee suburbs that does not allow LGBT teachers, students, or parents on its campus.
His liberal counterpart, Wisconsin Court of Appeals chief justice Lisa Neubauer, had no similar baggage. And she had a commanding advantage in fundraising for most the race. Some conservative groups resigned themselves to her victory weeks before Tuesday’s election.
So, a lot of Wisconsin Democrats are suffering from a bad case of 2016 déjà vu this morning:
The Wisconsin Supreme Court race that liberals needed to win to have a shot at taking majority control of the court next year appeared headed for a recount, with the conservative candidate declaring victory while holding a narrow lead following Tuesday’s election.
… Conservative Brian Hagedorn, who was Walker’s chief legal counsel for five years, led liberal-backed Lisa Neubauer by 5,911 votes out of 1.2 million cast, based on unofficial results. That is a difference of about 0.49 percentage point, close enough for Neubauer to request a recount but she would have to pay for it.
Hagedorn declared victory early Wednesday morning.
It’s conceivable that a recount could throw the election to Neubauer (so conceivable, Republicans are already laying the groundwork for delegitimizing such a result). But, for the moment, it appears that, while we were all debating a presidential primary that’s still ten months away, many progressives slept through an immensely consequential — and, by most accounts, easily winnable — election against a reactionary bigot in Wisconsin (again).