Wisconsin was, for most of the 20th century, known as a progressive state. Indeed, it was known as the progressive state.
There was a reason for that.
The Wisconsin progressive movement of Robert M. La Follette and his ideological allies—which gave the state its political identity in the past century and national Democrats a false sense of security in this one—took politics seriously. They did not prevail in every election, but they maintained a winning average that defined what is best about this state. For the old-school progressives who dominated the state’s politics from 1900 to the early 1940s, there was never such a thing as a “small” contest, or an “off-year” election. If a progressive was running for village board or district attorney or state senator or a US House seat or the presidency, activists were organizing their communities for “the cause.”
The initiators of this progressive political tradition, including my great grandfather and his allies in rural Grant County, were proud of their distinct, state-based movement for political and economic democracy. And they were proud of the political skills they developed and maintained in order to advance that movement as it advanced from the Republican Party to the independent Progressive Party to the Democratic Party. They never lost an election for lack of trying because they believed that every election—local, state, or national; partisan or nonpartisan—was a moral crusade on behalf of a shared faith that “the will of the people shall be the law of the land.”
It is this faith that Wisconsin progressives will need to renew if there is to be any hope for a politics that restores the honor and the promise of a state that embarrassed itself by helping to elect Donald Trump in 2016—and that ought not do the same in 2020.
Wisconsin is a battleground state and this is a make-or-break moment. But it is not the only battleground state of its kind. Trump assumed the presidency after losing the popular vote but narrowly prevailing in the fights for the electoral votes of three states with long histories of voting Democratic in presidential elections: Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
Those states are all led today by Democratic governors, thanks to the Democratic wave that swept across the Great Lakes region in 2018. But no one should imagine that one good election cycle for the Democrats means that these states have made a permanent move. Or that the nation is on a clear trajectory toward the post-Trump era.
Progressives have to recognize that this is the moment in which the future will be won or lost, not just for particular states but for the country.
Everything is up for grabs. Everything can be won. But everything can also be lost, as election results from Wisconsin are making all too clear.
The state can give hope. Wisconsin’s 2018 statewide elections showed what is possible: a rule-of-law progressive beat a right-wing judicial activist for the state Supreme Court in an officially nonpartisan but ideologically charged spring election, and then progressive Democrats won fall contests for US senator, governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and state treasurer.
But the state can also take hope away. Wisconsin’s only statewide election of 2019 provided a warning that the national right-wing groups that shored up former Governor Scott Walker’s reign of error are not about to stop meddling in the state’s politics.
Judge Lisa Neubauer, the chief judge of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, had the temperament, the qualifications, and the endorsements that would, traditionally, have ensured her election to replace Justice Shirley Abrahamson, an iconic liberal who is retiring at age 85. A Neubauer win in the April 2 election was supposed to secure the high court’s liberal minority and pave the way for a 2020 victory—on the same day as the Democratic presidential primary—that would restore a liberal majority on the bench.
Instead, Neubauer finished roughly 6,000 votes behind Brian Hagedorn, a legal henchman for Walker who got a courtesy appointment from the governor to serve on the Appeals Court. On Wednesday of this week, after determining that a recount would not change the close result, Neubauer conceded.
Hagedorn was an uninspired contender for the Supreme Court. He refused to recognize a duty to recuse himself from deliberations involving anti-labor laws he helped shape as a fixer for Walker. And revelations about his crudely biased statements and support for anti-LGBTQ discrimination led business groups and lobbyists with long histories of backing conservative court candidates to abandon (or at least dial back support for) his candidacy.
Hagedorn had motivated allies, however. Out-of-state special-interest spending by groups flush with cash from right-wing billionaires, and by state and national Republican groups that want the high court to protect the partisan gerrymandering that has benefited the GOP over the past decade, funded a lavish last-minute campaign on Hagedorn’s behalf. As the officially nonpartisan April 2 election approached, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign reported that “Republican-leaning express advocacy groups have filed paperwork showing large, last-minute spending on broadcast and digital ads, mailings, and robocalls to support Hagedorn.” Lavish spending, well in excess of $1 million, went into a final media blitz, and more money funded a mobilization push to get social conservatives to turn out for a candidate who they can expect to advance their agenda as an activist justice.
Trump was thrilled. He tweeted: “Congratulations to Brian Hagedorn on his big surprise win over a well funded Liberal Democrat in the Great State of Wisconsin for a very important Supreme Court seat. Republicans are producing big for Wisconsin!”
The president may not have known that the Wisconsin contest was a formally nonpartisan one, but he knew enough to celebrate a victory that was engineered by folks who are likely to be working on his behalf in 2020.
The Republicans strategists and conservative political operative who won Wisconsin for Hagedorn were smart. Don’t blame them for taking advantage of a presumption on the part of liberal strategists and pundits of all ideologies that a Neubauer win was to be expected.
Progressives must recognize that this is a race they did not need to lose.
The Supreme Court result offers a sobering reminder for Wisconsin progressives—and, by extension, for strategists and activists across the country. They have to get better, a lot better, at practicing a smart and effective politics in every corner of every state in every election.
The good news is that they can do this. The 2019 results from Wisconsin do not mean that the state’s progressives are guaranteed losers in 2020. The statewide Democratic sweep in 2018 showed that progressives can win big races. But the 2019 numbers were a nightmare. While right-wing voting in the Supreme Court race spiked—especially in conservative counties north and south of Milwaukee—turnout was disappointing in Milwaukee and in the western Wisconsin counties that have historically provided a rural boost for progressives. And turnout was insufficient in liberal Madison and surrounding Dane County, where a tiny boost in voter participation would could have put Neubauer over the top.
Progressives took their eye off the prize in Wisconsin this spring. They got overconfident. They failed to maintain the organization, the energy, and the sense of ideological urgency that made all those 2018 wins possible. If they fail in 2020, they run the risk of handing a vital battleground state and perhaps the nation to Donald Trump for another four years.