January 30, 2019
Special Guest Perspective by Dan O’Donnell
Every election is the most important in our lifetimes. At least, that’s what those running in every election want voters to believe. The future of the state, the country, and possibly human existence itself hang in the balance.
“Settle down,” an exasperated populace sighs. “You’re running for village comptroller.”
Stakes are raised in successive elections (no matter how seemingly insignificant) largely as a motivational tool, but occasionally a race does have the potential to fundamentally alter history.
And believe it or not, one is coming up in a little more than two months.
De facto control of the Wisconsin Supreme Court is on the line as liberal Court of Appeals chief judge Lisa Neubauer takes on conservative associate Court of Appeals judge Brian Hagedorn in the race to replace retiring Justice Shirley Abrahamson.
Replacing Abrahamson, one of the court’s three liberal justices, would not immediately swing the court’s balance of power one way or another, but if Neubauer wins, it would be highly likely that liberals take a 4-3 majority when conservative Justice Dan Kelly runs for re-election in the spring of 2020.
Kelly has the extreme misfortune of appearing on the same ballot as the literally dozens of Democratic presidential candidates who are already lining up for a chance to take on President Trump.
While it is possible (and even likely) that Trump faces a Republican primary challenger, the wide-open Democratic presidential primary ensures that Democrat turnout will be massive. In 2012, the last time an incumbent president ran for re-election, this was evident.
Incumbent President Barack Obama received 293,914 votes out of 300,255 cast. The winner of the Republican primary, Mitt Romney, received 346,876 votes. A total of 787,847 votes were cast in the Republican race, more than doubling the uncontested Democratic primary even though Romney faced only one serious challenger and had all but locked up the Republican nomination by the time Wisconsin’s primary rolled around in early April.
With so many popular Democratic candidates already in the 2020 race and many more likely to jump in, it is highly probable that the nomination will still be contested in Wisconsin. Since a prospective primary challenge to Trump would probably peter out far earlier, Democrats would likely enjoy a massive turnout advantage.
That’s bad news for Justice Kelly.
It stands to reason that very few of those Democratic primary voters would also vote for a Scott Walker appointee to the State Supreme Court, and thus Kelly has a steep hill to climb to win a full ten-year term on the bench.
If Neubauer wins this April, she will join Justices Ann Walsh Bradley and Rebecca Dallet in the liberal voting bloc. Conservatives would still enjoy a 4-3 majority with Patience Roggensack, Rebecca Bradley, Annette Ziegler, and Kelly, but if Kelly loses in 2020, liberals would assume the majority.
This would immediately prompt new challenges to much of the conservative legislative advances Wisconsin made during Waker’s tenure; and everything from Act 10 to Voter ID to the most recent laws passed during December’s extraordinary session could be on the chopping block.
Perhaps even more significantly, any attempt at redistricting from the Republican-controlled State Legislature following the 2020 Census would be almost certainly blocked by this new liberal majority.
If last year’s actions of Pennsylvania’s liberal Supreme Court are any guide, Wisconsin’s four liberal justices could theoretically draw their own map to make Wisconsin’s congressional and state legislative districts “more competitive” (read: far more favorable to Democrats).
All of this, of course, is purely hypothetical. Kelly doesn’t even have an opponent yet. It’s also possible (though highly unlikely) that Kelly doesn’t even face a challenger, a luxury Justice Ziegler enjoyed in the spring of 2017.
Wisconsin’s liberals, however, are far more motivated than they were just two years ago. Buoyed by statewide wins throughout 2018 (including a Supreme Court wipeout that brought Dallet to the bench), they will be loaded for bear in both the 2020 and 2019 Court races.
2019’s race is already underway, and it sure seems as if control of the Court for years to come is at stake. This may not be the most important election of our lifetimes and the future of life on earth may not hang in the balance, but it very well could go even further than this past November’s gubernatorial election in charting Wisconsin’s course.
Are you ready for it?