April 3, 2019
Special Guest Perspective by Dan O’Donnell
Brian Hagedorn was a dead man walking. Michael Screnock’s 12-point drubbing a year ago seemed like a best-case scenario. His liberal opponent had an overwhelming fundraising advantage, hundreds of thousands of dollars more in support from Eric Holder’s PAC and Planned Parenthood, and the residual wave of Governor Evers’ stunning upset just five months earlier.
Hagedorn couldn’t possibly win, not with the endless news reports about his old blog posts, Christian school policies, and Alliance Defending Freedom speeches.
His campaign was less a victory march than it was a march to the electoral gallows.
Just as importantly, the institutional conservative movement behind him was in shambles.
Finger-pointing over Governor Walker’s loss led to an overhaul of the Wisconsin Republican Party in the middle of Hagedorn’s campaign, and the Wisconsin Realtors Association’s very public rebuke of him left him politically toxic.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce refused to spend on his behalf, thinking that his was a lost cause. One could hardly blame them, either. Nobody, it seemed, gave Hagedorn even a puncher’s chance.
Yet Hagedorn punched anyway, and punched back so hard that it got Wisconsin’s vaunted conservative grassroots off the mat and in his corner. His campaign, to borrow Rocky’s tagline, was a million-to-one shot, but the grassroots were willing to take it with him even if no one else was.
New Republican Party leader Mark Jefferson returned power and autonomy to local party branches to coordinate get-out-the-vote efforts, Americans for Prosperity led the way in voter contacts, and even the voters themselves made phone calls, sent texts, and posted Facebook messages stressing to everyone they knew the importance of this race.
It is, of course, still too close to call and as of this writing well within the margin for a recount, but Hagedorn has also built enough of a lead that it will almost certainly hold. In the 27 statewide recounts over the past 20 years, the average swing was just 282 votes. The largest swing ever was 1,247 votes in the infamous Florida recount of 2000.
Once Hagedorn is sworn in, conservatives will take a 5-2 majority on the Supreme Court and, more importantly, indemnify themselves against the possibility of losing control next year. Had Hagedorn lost, the resulting 4-3 conservative majority would have likely been turned into a 4-3 liberal majority in the Spring of 2020 when incumbent conservative justice Dan Kelly has to run on the same ballot as the Democratic presidential primary.
The inherent liberal advantage there would have meant a near-insurmountable hill to climb, but if Hagedorn’s win should remind Wisconsin of anything, it’s that grassroots conservative activism is capable of pulling off major upsets.
A significant reason is acute awareness of the significance of the stakes. Once it was understood that this year’s race was essentially for control of the Court, conservatives steeled their resolve. Once they recognized that Hagedorn was essentially being attacked for his Christian beliefs, their resolve turned titanium.
Repeated attacks on mainstream Christian beliefs as being disqualifying for public office backfired spectacularly, as untold thousands of Christian conservatives (and, anecdotally, even a handful of Christian liberals) viewed them as a personal affront.
That was the ultimate motivator, as it provided a flashpoint for the pervading sense that liberalism was encroaching on Wisconsin’s values. First it was Holder’s hundreds of thousands trying to buy the Court, and then it was his allied groups intimating that a hateful Christian like Hagedorn, like you, wasn’t morally fit to sit on it.
This led voters to personally identify with Hagedorn in a way that they never did with Screnock or even winning candidates like Rebecca Bradley, David Prosser, Michael Gableman, and Annette Ziegler. All of them won hard-fought races and were predictably demonized on their way to the Court, but none experienced the intensely personal persecution that Hagedorn did.
That bonded conservatives to him and turned casual participants in this race into active supporters willing to go the extra mile for him. It wasn’t just that liberals were going to take over the Court, they were going to make sure someone like Hagedorn, like you, could never possibly hope to sit on it ever again.
This, apparently, was all it took to re-engage conservatives and re-awaken Wisconsin’s sleeping giant. Looming large now is the recount, but what lingers from this race is the sense that conservatism in this state can never be counted out.