GOP sees positive 2020 sign in Wisconsin Supreme Court race

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Conservative Brian Hagedorn's strong showing in Wisconsin's Supreme Court race cheered state Republicans Wednesday, with their first positive result in a statewide election since 2016 suggesting reasons for optimism next year in a critical presidential battleground.

Hagedorn led liberal-backed Lisa Neubauer by 5,962 votes — less than half a percentage point — in a race that could still go to a recount. But it came after a string of losses by Republicans in special and statewide elections since Donald Trump carried the state.

While Republicans were excited, they were also cautious about what Hagedorn's showing means for President Donald Trump's re-election.

"Nobody should assume because Republicans won this race that they will continue to win everything else," Republican strategist and former state GOP leader Brandon Scholz said. "This is one election where all the pieces came together at the end. 2020 is an entirely different, politically charged animal with the presidential race."

Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, who has been leading GOP efforts to rebound following the 2018 election, credited Hagedorn's showing with a ground-up engagement with conservatives who were angry with attacks in the race and national Democratic priorities.

"This is the recipe for success," he said. "That's what I've been preaching since the day after the November 2018 election. We have to energize, rely on the grassroots."

Democrats took it as a sign that despite a string of wins, including ousting Republican Gov. Scott Walker in November, nothing can be taken for granted.

"Not that Democrats needed it, but it's another wakeup call that every single election here is going to be highly competitive," said Democratic strategist Joe Zepecki. "This is not a red state. This is not a blue state. This is the deepest shade of purple there is on the spectrum."

Neubauer didn't immediately say whether she would request a recount, which would face a tough challenge in overturning such a large margin and which would come at her expense. She immediately appealed to supporters for money in case she pursues the recount, saying in a video posted on Facebook: "We need to make sure that every last vote is counted and that's going to take a little time."

Tuesday's election came with high stakes for both parties. The Wisconsin Supreme Court has been the deciding force in several partisan battles over policy in recent years, and is itself clearly partisan — conservatives hold a 4-3 edge. Democrats had hoped Neubauer would capture a seat currently held by a liberal justice, maintaining that spread but positioning them to win the majority in another election next year.

Unless Hagedorn's apparent victory is undone by recount, conservatives instead will enjoy a 5-2 majority and won't be at risk of losing it until at least 2023. The high court already looks likely to decide early disputes between new Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and majority Republicans in the Legislature.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin said Democrats running for president should take note of Tuesday's result. She has said her 11-point victory in 2018 should provide a roadmap to presidential candidates about how to win the state and its 10 electoral votes.

"If Democrats are going to win the White House in 2020 they should see last night's results as even more reason to invest time and effort here," Baldwin said. "The road to the White House goes right through Wisconsin."

Her Republican counterpart Johnson said even with a Hagedorn win, he does not think Republicans will become complacent in 2020.

"We know we have to be firing on all cylinders," Johnson said. "We have to run almost perfect elections going forward. ... If (Democrats) are energized, we're going to have issues. Nobody will be overconfident. We know what's at stake."

Trump won Wisconsin by less than a point in 2016. Democrats were highly critical of 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's decision not to campaign in Wisconsin after losing the state's primary to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Already this year, Democratic former Rep. Beto O'Rourke and Sen. Amy Klobuchar have made swings through the state, with more promised. Sanders has been a frequent campaigner in Wisconsin for Democratic candidates since 2016.

Hagedorn declared victory early Wednesday morning, and at a news conference a few hours later called his lead "insurmountable."

"It looks like the lead is quite large and a recount would not make a whole lot of sense," he said. "But we are certainly more than ready for that."

Turnout was strong at nearly 27%, well above the 22% of last year's state Supreme Court race. Hagedorn overcame Neubauer's huge margins in the liberal strongholds of Madison and Milwaukee by running up the vote in Green Bay and more rural parts of northeastern and north central Wisconsin. Those are both parts of the state that helped fuel Trump's win in 2016.

Counties will canvass the vote starting next week and have until April 12 to report their results, and Neubauer has three days after the final report is in to request a recount.

Wisconsin recounted its presidential vote in 2016 at Green Party candidate Jill Stein's expense. In that recount of nearly 3 million ballots, only 131 votes were changed — in favor of Trump. Neubauer, in a recount of just 1.2 million ballots, would have to pick up 45 times as many votes.

The 2016 presidential recount cost local election clerks $2 million, which is more than the $1.7 million Neubauer raised during the entire Supreme Court campaign through March 18. However, those costs included overtime for clerks who had to count nearly 2.9 million votes under a tight deadline due to the Electoral College.


Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter:


Associated Press writer Ivan Moreno contributed to this report from Pewaukee, Wisconsin.