Urban strength, suburban inroads and a Dane County tidal wave helped propel Democrats to victory in Wisconsin last fall.
Could that Trump-era pattern repeat itself in Tuesday’s state Supreme Court race?
Or have the GOP’s midterm losses delivered a wake-up call to the party’s conservative base?
The judicial showdown between two state Appeals Court judges, Lisa Neubauer and Brian Hagedorn, is far from a perfect barometer of the post-midterm Wisconsin electorate.
That’s because it’s a nonpartisan spring race and turnout for Supreme Court elections is typically around 20% of the voting-age population — less than half that of a contest for governor.
But Supreme Court races have become far more politicized than they used to be and are now viewed through a partisan lens by the parties, activists, the media and many voters.
Republicans are aligned behind the more conservative Hagedorn (onerecent pro-Hagedorn ad praises President Donald Trump). Democrats are lined up behind the more liberal Neubauer.
Tuesday’s race is also the only big statewide election in Wisconsin in the off-year between the 2018 midterms and 2020, when Wisconsin will be a frenzied presidential battleground.
As a result, both sides will be looking for electoral clues and lessons in Tuesday’s vote.
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Here are some things to watch for:
Have conservatives lost the upper hand in Supreme Court races?
The more conservative candidate has won 10 of 14 Supreme Court elections in Wisconsin dating back to 2000. But the more liberal candidate has won two of the past three contested races (2015 and 2018). A Neubauer victory would make it three of four.
Can Hagedorn overcome the ever-growing electoral clout of liberal Dane County?
Dane County, home to Madison, is easily the fastest-growing part of Wisconsin and its sky-high level of political engagement can give it even more electoral impact in a low-turnout April race than in a higher-turnout November race.
A little history makes the point. Two decades ago, Dane County voted for the more conservative Supreme Court candidate, Diane Sykes, against Louis Butler in 2000. It has voted for the more liberal candidate ever since, by larger and larger margins.
Last year, it supported winning court candidate Rebecca Dallet by 62 percentage points. It also accounted for 13.4% of the votes cast statewide. That was its highest share ever in a court race and a higher share of the statewide vote than any other county, including the much larger Milwaukee (which accounted for 13.1% of the statewide vote) and the biggest Republican County, Waukesha (8.9% of the statewide vote).
Dallet won Dane by more than 80,000 votes in 2018, which added more than 8 points to her statewide winning margin. She won Wisconsin by a bigger margin than that (11.5 points) but Dane had far more impact on the outcome than any other area of the state. Just as it played a central role last fall in the defeat of GOP Gov. Scott Walker, it may play a central role in Tuesday’s election.
Whither the suburbs?
The suburban vote is one of the ongoing dramas of state and national politics.
Wisconsin has liberal, conservative and competitive suburbs. But the Republican suburban counties outside Milwaukee (the “WOW counties” of Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington) have been the foundation of much of the GOP’s electoral success in recent decades. They are home to many voters who belong to the party’s conservative base. But they are also home to more moderate suburban voters, especially women, who have major qualms about Trump.
Trump won the WOW counties in 2016 but by smaller margins than the party’s 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney. Walker easily won them in 2018, but by smaller margins than he had in his 2014 re-election victory.
Will Tuesday’s vote show continued suburban erosion for the GOP side in southeast Wisconsin and elsewhere in the state? Or will it show a GOP base alarmed and motivated by the party’s midterm losses?
A big pro-Hagedorn ad buy that touts Trump is squarely aimed at energizing the Trump vote and getting out the base in a low-turnout election. But how does it play in the suburbs?
Other keys to watch
Other key regions to watch include the smaller, pro-Trump counties of northern and western Wisconsin. Will they turn out?
Milwaukee County has an unpredictable voting history in April elections and doesn’t historically deliver for the “liberal” court candidate anything like the point margins it delivers for Democrats in partisan races.
And the Fox Valley-Green Bay region is always an important battleground. Brown County, home to Green Bay, has voted for every state Supreme Court winner since at least 2000.
Reading hints about 2020 into Tuesday’s election results comes with many caveats.
For instance, it’s possible that statewide turnout won’t match the turnout for last year’s April court race (22.3% of voting-age adults) because 2018 was a big election year that generated a hothouse political environment. But it would make no sense to read a drop-off in April 2019 court turnout as a sign that voters won’t be deeply engaged in the presidential election in November 2020, when they can be expected to turn out like crazy.
Like any election, the Hagedorn-Neubauer race is its own contest with its own issues and own dynamics.
But like any election, it may offer broader takeaways. It may provide some hints about current levels of motivation and engagement on the Democratic left and Republican right.
It may tell us more about whether the partisan voting patterns of the Trump era extend to big, nonpartisan court races. It will shed light on the balance of power in judicial elections in Wisconsin. And of course, it will help determine the philosophical makeup of the state’s highest court as we head into another big court race in April 2020.
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