Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates Judge Brian Hagedorn, left, and Judge Lisa Neubauer shake hands following their forum at the Milwaukee Bar Association on March 19.
(Photo: Angela Peterson, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
Eight years ago, conservatives won a dramatic half-point victory in a high-turnout election for Wisconsin’s highest court.
History repeated itself last Tuesday.
In terms of the statewide vote, the two contests — won by David Prosser in 2011 and Brian Hagedorn in 2019 — look virtually identical.
Prosser defeated Joanne Kloppenburg 50.18 percent to 49.71 percent.
Hagedorn defeated Lisa Neubauer 50.25 percent to 49.75 percent (based on unofficial returns).
Justice David Prosser and Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg appear before a debate for the Wisconsin Supreme Court at the Marquette University Law School Monday, March 21, 2011.
(Photo: Benny Sieu/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
But at the local level, the two races look quite different in some respects, and those differences reflect important political shifts in both Wisconsin and the nation over the past decade. The Hagedorn victory map is not the same as the Prosser victory map.
Hagedorn did much better than Prosser in northern and central Wisconsin. For example, Prosser lost Wood County (home to Marshfield and Wisconsin Rapids) by 2 points, but Hagedorn won it by 14, a shift of 16 points in a conservative direction. Prosser won Barron County in northwest Wisconsin by 1 point, but Hagedorn won it by almost 21, a shift of 20 points.
But Hagedorn did worse than Prosser in the very Democratic Madison region; in both the blue and red counties of metro Milwaukee; and (to a lesser extent) in the battleground counties between Green Bay and Lake Winnebago. Prosser won Republican Ozaukee County in southeast Wisconsin by 43 points, but Hagedorn won it by 25 — a shift of 18 points in a liberal direction. Prosser lost Dane by more than 46 points, but Hagedorn lost it by 58, a 12-point shift. Prosser won Brown County (home to Green Bay) by 10 points, but Hagedorn won it by just 6.
These two races ended the same way — with a very slender conservative victory — but took different paths to get there.
The most striking thing about the regional shifts in these nonpartisan April judicial races is that they look an awful lot like the regional shifts we’ve seen in partisan November races.
Gov. Scott Walker (right) and challenger Tony Evers meet on stage for introductions and photos before a 2018 debate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Compare former GOP Gov. Scott Walker’s narrow re-election defeat last fall to Democrat Tony Evers to his re-election victory four years earlier. Where did the Walker of 2018 do worse than the Walker of 2014? In the southeastern GOP suburbs, metropolitan Madison and the Green-Bay-Appleton metro area.
The greatest erosion in Walker’s margins occurred, in order, in these counties: Ozaukee, Waukesha, Dane, Eau Claire, Brown and Outagamie. In which counties did Hagedorn in 2019 most underperform Prosser in 2011? In order: Ozaukee, Door, Milwaukee, Dane, and Waukesha. Brown and Outagamie are a bit further down that list.
On the flip side, the biggest conservative gains for Hagedorn over Prosser occurred in smaller counties across the northern half of the state, which is exactly where Walker did better in 2018 than he did in 2014.
Now consider a third set of elections, the past two contests for president in Wisconsin.
Where did Republican Donald Trump make the biggest gains compared to the GOP nominee four years earlier, Mitt Romney? Overwhelmingly in northern and central Wisconsin, and most of all in smaller rural counties.
Where did Trump do worse than Romney? In just four counties: (in order) Ozaukee, Waukesha, Dane and Milwaukee.
In short, the last three elections for very different offices — president, governor and state Supreme Court — reflect similar geographic shifts, shifts that began before Trump’s 2016 presidential candidacy but have grown more pronounced in the Trump era.
In Wisconsin, the geographic divide in the state used to be more east vs. west. Now it is becoming more north vs. south, as metropolitan counties become more liberal (or less conservative) and rural counties become more conservative (or less liberal).
Four key takeaways
Here are some broad observations about last week’s court race and its electoral significance:
• Voters in big nonpartisan court races are increasingly voting the way they do in big partisan races. The Hagedorn-Neubauer Supreme Court election map of 2019 is almost the same as the Walker-Evers gubernatorial election map of 2018.
Hagedorn’s share of the vote was within 5 points of Walker’s in 67 of the state’s 72 counties. It was within 3 points of Walker’s in 58 of 72 counties. One was a nonpartisan April race that attracted 26% of Wisconsin’s voting-age adults; the other was a partisan November race that attracted 60% of voting-age adults. Yet the county-by-county voting patterns in the two contests are almost the same.
Statistically, the correlation is extreme by historical standards. Charles Franklin of the Marquette Law School poll did an analysis last week comparing the voting patterns in every high court race over the past 40 years to the 40-year pattern in partisan races. It shows that the resemblance between Supreme Court races and partisan races has steadily grown.
• While some parts of Wisconsin are shifting in their politics, other parts have remained quite purple and swing-y. That’s especially true of both northeast and southwest Wisconsin.
The key battleground counties between Green Bay and Lake Winnebago (Brown, Outagamie, Winnebago) voted for the conservative court candidate in 2011 and 2019 but for the liberal candidate in 2018 and 2015. They voted for Trump in 2016 but for Obama either once or twice. They voted Republican for governor in 2018 but Democratic for senator (Tammy Baldwin).
The rural southwest voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 before swinging dramatically for Trump in 2016. But since then, it has voted for Evers and Baldwin in 2018 and for the liberal Neubauer last Tuesday.
• Despite these long-term shifts, these trends and patterns are not all set in stone. For example, the suburban counties outside Milwaukee have become less Republican since 2016, but they are performing differently for different candidates. There are still multiple ways for the two parties to win and lose elections in Wisconsin. Republicans and conservatives have built some victories on suburban strength (Walker in 2010 and 2014) and others on rural strength (Trump in 2016).
Democrats and liberals have eked out some victories by maximizing turnout and generating landslides in Milwaukee and Madison (Evers in 2018) but also won broader victories by performing well in the rural west and more populous Fox Valley (Rebecca Dallet for Supreme Court and Baldwin for Senate in 2018).
You could argue that Hagedorn won Tuesday’s election by performing much better than conservative court candidate Michael Screnock did last year in the Green Bay and Wausau media markets. You could also argue Hagedorn won because he got a higher share of the vote than Walker did last year in metro Milwaukee. A vote gained in the north counts the same as a vote gained in the south.
• Finally, while some regions of the state are growing more liberal and others are growing more conservative, these shifts have not appreciably moved the state as a whole to the right or left. It’s not at all clear that one party is gaining the upper hand in the war for Wisconsin.
Instead, both sides have acute weaknesses that leave them little margin for error when the national climate is competitive. Those weaknesses are growing more pronounced, with Democrats losing ground up north and in rural Wisconsin and Republicans losing ground in the metro areas of Milwaukee and Madison.
This state has now seen nail-biter elections for president in 2000, 2004 and 2016; for governor in 2018; for attorney general in 2006; and for state Supreme Court in 2011 and 2019 — despite the very real regional political shifts that have occurred over the past two decades.
A high court race in 2019 is not a great guidepost for a presidential race in 2020. Turnout will be almost three times higher in November of next year than it was this April. President Trump will be on the ballot, boosting the liberal vote in some corners of Wisconsin and the conservative vote in others.
But this very “partisan” nonpartisan race is another reminder that Wisconsin is basically up for grabs when each party’s base is equally motivated and neither side enjoys a clear turnout advantage.
And it’s a reminder that neither Democrats nor Republicans should feel very comfortable about the battle for Wisconsin in 2020.