MADISON, Wis.—Wisconsin liberals hope to take a key step this spring toward breaking a long conservative stranglehold on the state's Supreme Court, in an election that could also serve as a barometer of the political mood in a key presidential swing state.
If the liberal-backed candidate wins the April 2 state Supreme Court race, liberals would be in prime position to take over the court when the next seat comes up in 2020—during a presidential primary when Democrats expect to benefit from strong turnout.
The bitterly partisan court, which conservatives have controlled since 2008, has upheld several polarizing Republican-backed laws, none more so than former GOP Gov. Scott Walker's law that essentially eliminated collective bargaining for public workers.
If liberals can win in April and again in 2020, they would have the majority until at least 2025.
"It is absolutely critical we win this race," liberal attorney Tim Burns, who lost a Wisconsin Supreme Court race in 2018, said of the April election. "It does set us up for next year to get a court that's likely to look very differently on issues of the day like voters' rights and gerrymandering."
The court could face big decisions on several partisan issues in the coming years, including on the next round of redistricting that follows the 2020 Census, lawsuits challenging the massive Foxconn Technology Group project backed by President Donald Trump, and attempts to undo laws that Republicans passed during a recent lame-duck session to weaken the incoming Democratic governor before he took office.
A group run by former Democratic U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that fights gerrymandered maps spent money supporting the winning liberal candidate in last year's Wisconsin Supreme Court race. It was expected to do so again this spring ahead of the next round of redistricting.
Given that Wisconsin now has a Democratic governor and Republican-dominated Legislature, the courts will increasingly serve as the battleground where disputes will be resolved, said Douglas Keith, counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks spending in judicial races.
Keith said he expects millions to be spent on the April race by outside groups even though majority control won't shift by its result alone.
This year's race, which is officially nonpartisan, pits liberal-backed chief state Appeals Court Judge Lisa Neubauer against fellow Appeals Court Judge Brian Hagedorn, the choice of conservatives.
"This is likely going to be the race that determines the philosophy that will govern the Supreme Court for the next 10 to 20 years," Hagedorn said in an interview. "People understand what's at stake in this race."
Liberals are confident the electorate is on their side. Liberal-backed Rebecca Dallet won a spot on the high court last year in a race where she ran a television ad critical of President Donald Trump. Democrats captured every statewide race in 2018 and recent polls show voters siding with Democrats on a host of issues raised during that election.
Trump became the first Republican to carry Wisconsin since Ronald Reagan in 1984, and Democrats are determined to put the state back in their column in 2020. The result of April's court race will be read as the latest indicator of their prospects.
"They are holding a good hand," said Republican strategist and longtime court watcher Brian Nemoir. "But we are in a period of political swings right now. What's true yesterday may not be true tomorrow."
Democrats are even more confident about 2020, when conservative Justice Dan Kelly will be up for re-election. That race takes place during a presidential primary that should have heavy turnout by Democrats—but not by Republicans, with Trump at this stage unlikely to face a serious primary challenge.
Legislative Republicans were so concerned about losing the Kelly seat that they actually considered moving the primary date to improve his chances, but they ultimately dropped the idea amid widespread criticism.
Both Hagedorn and Neubauer pitch themselves as impartial, despite having partisan ties.
"I am not running for the Supreme Court to promote any policy agenda whatsoever, whether Governor Walker's or Governor Evers'," Hagedorn said. "My job doesn't change one bit depending on who the governor is or who controls the Legislature."
Hagedorn, 41, served as a law clerk for state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, whose victory in 2008 gave conservatives control of the court. Hagedorn served as an assistant attorney general, worked in private practice and was Walker's chief legal counsel for nearly five years. Walker appointed him to the state appeals court in 2015 and Hagedorn won election two years later.
Hagedorn's law school blog from 2005 and 2006 has become a flashpoint in the race. He wrote about his evangelical Christian beliefs, calling Planned Parenthood a "wicked organization" and denouncing court rulings favoring gay rights by likening homosexuality to bestiality.
Hagedorn hasn't apologized for what he wrote and said his personal views don't affect his judicial rulings. Neubauer said she was surprised by the posts, but she declined to comment beyond that.
Neubauer, 61, was appointed to the appeals court in 2007 by former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. She previously donated $8,100 to Doyle.
Neubauer was elected to the appeals court in 2008, re-elected in 2014 and has been chief judge since 2015. She spent almost 20 years as an attorney in private practice.
Both candidates cite bipartisan endorsements as proof that they would be impartial.
Neubauer's campaign is full of Democratic operatives, including Scott Spector, who managed Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin's re-election victory last year. Hagedorn's campaign is run by Stephan Thompson, a former Walker campaign manager.
Neubauer's husband, Jeff, was a former Democratic legislator and past chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party while her daughter, Greta Neubauer, is currently a state representative from Racine.
"I have chosen a very different path than my family," Neubauer said. "I would ask to be judged on the path that I've chosen and my path is as a judge."
The winner will serve a 10-year term.