Democrats Can’t Lose Sight of the Importance of Down-Ballot Races: A Lesson from April’s Wisconsin Supreme Court Race

One area where we’ve struggled as Democrats, not just in Wisconsin, but all across the country, is in state and local elections.

For too long, we’ve neglected vitally important races, like our State Supreme Court and state legislative races, that play a crucial role in shaping our government.

Take the Wisconsin Supreme Court election from this past April.

Between the seat that was up this past April, and another that is up next April, Democrats had an opportunity to flip control of our State Supreme Court for the first time in several years if we were able to win both races. That was an important thing to do, especially considering that the Court may play a vital role in the redistricting process after the 2020 census.

Though these races are technically non-partisan, each party, and the outside groups affiliated with them, try to push for the candidates for Judge that best represent their views. After all, Judges have their own ideological and partisan biases, just like every one else in every other branch of government.

We lost a very winnable seat. Despite Judge Brian Hagedorn having miles of serious baggage behind him, he upset Judge Lisa Neubauer in a statewide race just months after Democrats had swept every state-wide race in 2018. This meant the Court went from a 4-3 conservative majority, to a 5-2 majority. The earliest Democrats can flip control of the Court now is 2023 unless a conservative justice steps down before then.

Much of the reason for that particular defeat certainly rests at the feet of Judge Neubauer and her campaign. After all, she tried to distance herself from any outside help from Democratic organizations, and ” she ducked questions” at the judicial debate where she “endlessly repeated her campaign talking points — that she is “fair, impartial and independent” and backed by 345 past and present Wisconsin judges, way more than Hagedorn — and falsely claimed that the Code of Judicial Conduct prohibited her from commenting on any issue that may come before the court.” These problems affected her ability to turnout the voters she needed in a tight race.

April’s State Supreme Court race, however, also speaks to the problems we sometimes have in turning out our voters in important state and local races. Several voters I spoke to at doors, as well as volunteers involved in our cause, indicated to me that we didn’t do enough to reach voters before the election. A few voters even admitted to me in person that they weren’t even aware of the election!

Flipping control of the State Supreme Court was, and is vitally important. The State Supreme Court, in it’s current conservative construction, has been about as partisan as a court can be. Their decisions have been harmful to the functionality of our government.

They sided with the State Superintendent three years ago (when there were two different conservative justices on the court), but then abruptly reversed course this past Spring, once Tony Evers became governor, to require the State Superintendent to gain permission from the Governor “before writing rules implementing education-related laws.” Republicans filed this lawsuit back when Governor Walker was still in power AND Governor Evers was the head of the Department of Public Instruction. The move was, essentially, a power grab by the GOP to try and take powers away from an agency head that they didn’t like, but couldn’t defeat in the non-partisan state-wide elections for that seat. It only avoided being this due to Governor Walker losing last November, before the decision was made by the Court.

Our State Supreme Court also recently sided with most aspects of the GOP’s lame duck power grab, from last fall, which stripped Governor Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul of several of their powers and gave it to the Republican-controlled state legislature. Their reversal of a lower court’s decision to block the implementation of these laws likely indicates that they will side with most, or all aspects of the Republican’s unconstitutional power grab when they deal with the actual legal merits of each provision later on.

There’s also a substantial likelihood that, barring a landslide election that overcomes the Republican gerrymander of our legislative districts, Republicans will still control one chamber of the legislature (likely the State Assembly) after next November’s elections. That means there is very high probability that our redistricting process will end up in front of the State Supreme Court.

If the legislature and the executive can’t agree on the maps that are drawn, which is probably inevitable in our divided government, that would put our redistricting process to the State Supreme Court where one of two things could happen:

  1. Our State Supreme Court could be forced to draw the district lines themselves if there is no agreement between the parties. There’s a possibility that, instead of doing this, they’d just side with the Republican-drawn maps, especially if the Republicans have both chambers of the state legislature at the time the maps are drawn, OR
  2. The GOP legislature, if they control both chambers, may try to cut the governor out of the redistricting process entirely, then ask the State Supreme Court to overturn the case that says the governor gets a say in the redistricting process. This would result in whatever maps they draw being upheld by our state courts. Republicans deny they are considering this, but it’s a distinct possibility that they’d just reverse course on this if they keep control of both chambers next November.

These are just three examples that show how the State Supreme Court makes a lot of vital decisions that can have a substantial impact on how our government operates. This doesn’t even begin to touch on many other areas of law that the Court deals with that affect our everyday lives (like due process rights, privacy rights, discrimination based on gender, race, or sexual orientation, etc..).

We need to be making much more of an effort at informing our voters of the importance of these races, then pushing them to turn out for them whenever they come about. Republicans have understood the importance of these races for years. It’s why their voters turn out and they win close elections, especially with lower turnout.

Unless and until we get our voters engaged in these races, we will continue to see a state government that doesn’t represent a majority of Wisconsinites, and which will continue to make destructive decisions that cause harm to our government and to our people. It’s incumbent on all of us to step up.

6 thoughts on “Democrats Can’t Lose Sight of the Importance of Down-Ballot Races: A Lesson from April’s Wisconsin Supreme Court Race

  1. It does no good to capture the Presidency and retain the House if Moscow Mitch and the other cowardly Republicans retain a choke hold on the Senate. We often forget that while winning gubernatorial slots is important , members of state legislatures write the laws. There is little hope for us here in Mississippi, but the sad lessons of the past should energize all progressives everywhere.

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    1. Exactly! Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that gerrymanders are most effective when it comes to state legislative districts. That makes it nearly impossible for us to win both chambers in some states (see our State Assembly here in Wisconsin).

      We have to do our best, though, with what’s set up for us. That means competing everywhere, including in states like yours where we’ve neglected to invest adequately for at least 10-15 years.

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      1. In RUCHO ET AL. v. COMMON CAUSE ET AL. APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE
        MIDDLE DISTRICT OF NORTH CAROLINA
        No. 18–422. Argued March 26, 2019—Decided June 27, 2019*

        Justice Kavanaugh was the deciding vote in this 5-4 decision which basically held the courts cannot touch state legislature’sartisan gerrymandering for political purposes. Incredible!

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  2. So true. Frankly, the House and Senate in many ways are more important than the presidency. Control of both is the gold standard. The same is true of state legislatures. Fool Republican governors and a fool Republican President can be stopped from further eroding our freedoms, eliminating environmental protections, and appointing right wing judges dedicated to furthering the Republican agenda.

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