Tuesday’s Wisconsin Supreme Court election cast a familiar pall over the hopes of Democrat and progressive citizens of Wisconsin. We had hoped that the skin-of-their-teeth election of Tony Evers, Mandela Barnes, and Josh Kaul to some of the top political jobs in our state signaled a turning of the tide.
But the skin-of-his-teeth election of Brian Hagedorn to die-hard liberal justice Shirley Abrahamson’s seat demonstrated the strength of the conservative vote in Wisconsin.
As chief justice of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, Lisa Neubauer had the experience, the endorsements, and the money. According to Ballotopedia, Neubauer raised more money than Hagedorn did. She had the endorsement of law enforcement groups and an impressive, 300-strong list of her fellow jurists. In another era, Neubauer would have been a sure winner.
One of the biggest spenders in the campaign was The Greater Wisconsin Committee, a Madison-based progressive PAC, which spent $835,000 in support of Neubauer’s candidacy. Without them, she might even have won this election.
Brian Hagedorn, who was Scott Walker’s chief legal counsel before being appointed by him to the Court of Appeals, is no fool. Early on in the race, he took to the airwaves with touchy-feely commercials about his adopted daughter, who was born addicted to opiates, smartly borrowing a page from Tammy Baldwin’s 2018 playbook. His TV ads never talked about gay rights, the issue he became most associated with in the minds of voters thanks to GWC’s commercials.
The progressive PAC’s “Hagedorn-is-anti-gay” TV commercials demonstrated the strength of one of the oldest clichés in our language, i.e.: Never wave a red flag at a bull. I would argue that those commercials did more to get out the pro-Hagedorn vote than any other single factor in the election.
The commercials made the argument that discrimination against all groups is wrong by linking the successful battles of the Civil Rights era to bias against the LBGTQ community. Then they focused on examples of anti-gay bigotry on Hagedorn’s part, like the fact that he sits on the board of a Christian school, the Augustine Academy, that explicitly bars gays.
For the solid chunk of Wisconsin voters who are members of the evangelical community, GWC’s argument fell on deaf ears. Your race is not a choice, they would say. According to this community, your “orientation” is the gender assigned to you at birth by your genitalia, and anything else is just plain sin. These folks are not as noisy as evangelicals in other states. They don’t start fights over gay wedding cakes or who goes into which bathroom. They have their voucher schools, their private Christian lending institutions, and their Christian plumbing contractors and electricians. They are a nation unto themselves, one that believes Oprah is a racist, abortions are routinely performed in the ninth month of pregnancy, and God wants Donald Trump to be president.
GWC apparently believed Wisconsin had changed radically since 2006, when 59% of voters decided that gay marriage should never be legal in this Wisconsin, even if the state constitution had to be amended to ensure it. Many progressives seem to believe that SCOTUS’s invalidation of gay marriage bans nationwide was enough to change all those hearts and minds. Once something is legal, the argument goes, it becomes more accepted.
Has anyone ever heard of the anti-abortion movement?
Out here where I live, in Waukesha County, support for Hagedorn was everywhere, but particularly on the lawns of people who hold bible studies in their homes (and there are lots of them) and demonstrate their allegiance to voucher schools with yard signs. Waukesha County also has several bible-based evangelical mega-churches, like River Glen, Elmbrook, and Springdale, and a whole slew of more traditional places of worship in the Baptist and Evangelical Lutheran category.
And now we have another homophobic state supreme court justice. In Waukesha County, Brian Hagedorn won by 68.5%. He turned out voters in Northeastern and North Central Wisconsin who evidently stayed home during last year’s midterms. Massive turnout in Madison and solid turnout in Milwaukee and other municipalities were not enough to hold him off.
Most Dems and progressives expected Neubauer to be the clear winner. She had the money, after all, and wasn’t it the money that won all those elections for Scott Walker?
Many Democrats are evidently unaware that evangelicals are a significant voting bloc in this state, especially in the collar counties. A woman I know is an active Democratic fund-raiser who has recruited a number of candidates to run for state and local office. When I asked her how the party should address the “vast” number of citizens who vote their religion, she said, “Oh, come on. There are not that many evangelicals in Wisconsin.”
In the Democratic Party we are currently obsessed with organizing, with canvassing and phone-banking, with collecting the data and getting out the vote. If we can only get out the vote, it is said at party meetings, we can win. Steven Bower is the chair of the Jefferson County Democrats. He and his wife knocked on 1,000 doors for Lisa Neubauer. The efforts of Bower and his wife were heroic. Trust me on that one. It takes me three hours just to hit 40 or 50 doors out here. But how exhausting is that? Just to lose to a TV commercial?
Of course, progressives generally don’t mind losing on the issues. But in this case, we lost a lot. I don’t know how many votes on gay rights are going to come before the state supreme court. But I do know that this election has imperiled our right to clean water; has put our rivers, lakes, streams, and wetlands in serious jeopardy; will wreak havoc on the rights of individual property owners; endangers women’s rights to reproductive healthcare; and will most likely set off a continuing round of draining legal fights that we now have much less hope of winning.
Christianity and corporate interests walk hand-in-hand in Wisconsin. All it takes is one look at Brian Hagedorn’s smug, self-satisfied face to know, they ain’t worried. And we need to adjust our strategies accordingly.
Otherwise, we will probably continue to win a battle here and there. They never totally wipe us out. And you meet a lot of nice people on the marches. But the very term “resistance” implies that we are fighting against a unified force nearly overwhelming in its might. This is God’s army (at least, they think so) and they are going to keep on coming for us.