TO: Interested Parties
FROM: David Kanevsky, RSLC VP of Political Affairs and Andrew Wynne, VP of Judicial Fairness Initiative
DATE: April 4, 2019
RE: How the RSLC – Judicial Fairness Initiative Helped Justice Brian Hagedorn Flip a Wisconsin Supreme Court Race
The Republican State Leadership Committee – Judicial Fairness Initiative (JFI) launched a full-scale, micro-targeted voter education project of $1.3 million over the last week of the campaign to turn out low propensity, conservative voters and persuade undecided swing voters, which helped carry conservative Judge Brian Hagedorn to victory in the Wisconsin Supreme Court race.
After losing the U.S. Supreme Court with the confirmation of Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, national liberal groups have turned their attention to electing liberal, activist judges to state courts around the country. After electing a Democratic governor in November 2018, Democrats set their sights on the Wisconsin Supreme Court with the hope of holding an important open seat of a retiring, long-time liberal Justice.
Going into this election, conservatives held a 4-3 majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Expanding the conservative majority this year was critical, because the April 2020 election for a conservative seat will occur the same day as the Presidential primaries. Given the large field of candidates already announced for the Democratic nomination and an uncontested Republican nomination, we anticipate a high turnout on the Democratic side. If conservatives lost in 2019 and lose in 2020, the Wisconsin Supreme Court would have a liberal majority until at least 2025.
As Talking Points Memo stated prior to the election, “Strategists on both sides of the aisle agree that the election has far-reaching implications for Wisconsin’s future, including the upcoming redistricting fight, voting rights, and legal challenges to the GOP agenda passed under Walker.”
National liberal groups saw this election as a critical, must-win election for a variety of reasons, including that a victory would put them in a strong position to take majority control of the court in 2020 and hold it until at least 2025. Liberals also saw this as an opportunity to show that Wisconsin was trending Democratic and a preview toward 2020, where they hope to deliver a win for the Democratic presidential candidate.
Democrats spent over $3.5 million on TV alone in their efforts to hold the seat. This spend is on top of President Obama and Eric Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee spending $350,000 on the race.
RSLC – Judicial Fairness Initiative Role
Going into the final week of the election, RSLC polled the race and found Judge Brian Hagedorn to be down by 8 points, 34%-42%, to his opponent, but a path to victory remained despite millions of dollars in negative personal attacks. Through the polling we identified that Judge Hagedorn’s biggest challenge was that he was not winning among Republicans (+50%) as much as his opponent was winning among Democrats (+71%). Equalizing the partisan intensity made this a two point race.
The April 2018 Supreme Court race saw just under 1 million votes cast, with the liberal candidate outpacing the conservative candidate by 115,040 votes. The RSLC data team overlaid the voter scores of those who voted in the April 2018 election, and we saw a similar pattern, which told us that even though this is a non-partisan race, voters were casting their ballots along ideological lines.
Making up the 115,000 vote deficit that conservatives faced in the 2018 Supreme Court race required either turning out 120,000 more conservative leaning voters, or persuading 60,000 swing voters to switch their vote. While liberal groups were focused on persuasion, the RSLC data team told us there were only limited persuadable, high propensity swing voters who vote in April elections. Instead, we saw that turning out low propensity Republicans would be a more effective use of our resources.
The RSLC data team identified a large number of Republican turnout targets. These voters were highly likely to support Republicans and had not consistently voted in April judicial elections. Our message reminded them of the date of the election, notified them of the stakes of this election, and tied Judge Hagedorn to other popular conservative judges like Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, and Antonin Scalia.
JFI implemented this strategy through targeted digital ads, tv ads on conservative cable networks, radio ads, mail, and text messaging. Our targeted messaging was designed to give conservatives a reason to turnout for a race when they usually would not vote, by focusing on President Trump and the liberals’ fight against his U.S. Supreme Court nominees.
To accomplish this we mailed three targeted mail pieces to in targeted households. We also sent 1.2 million GOTV text messages to an audience of low-propensity, conservative voters over the last few days of the election. Our digital ads were seen almost 14 million times by low propensity conservative voters.
Our data-driven decisions generated savings allowing us to go up on broadcast tv in swing DMAs with a contrast message. This final ad, in the right DMAs, addressed swing voters when they were finally paying attention to the race.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel summed up the win by saying, “In the 18-county Green Bay media market in northeast Wisconsin, the swing in the margin was 18 points, according to incomplete returns, from a conservative deficit of more than 3 points last year to a conservative lead of roughly 15 points this time. In the 11-county Wausau media market in north central Wisconsin, the swing in the court margin was 17 points, from a conservative deficit of 3 points in 2018 to an advantage of 14 points this time. Those two regions, which happen to be areas where Republican Donald Trump performed well in 2016, also saw some of the state’s biggest turnout increases over April of 2018 (A late pro-Hagedorn TV blitz invoked Trump in this race).”
With regard to a possible recount, Scott Bauer with the Associated Press reminded us, “In 2016 presidential recount of nearly 3 million ballots, only 131 were changed in favor of @realDonaldTrump. Neubauer, in a recount of just 1.2 million ballots, would have to pick up 45 times as many votes.”
The morning following the election, Democrats woke up to realize that the RSLC’s Judicial Fairness Initiative had outsmarted them at their own game. The Hagedorn campaign was able to keep the race close while the media called the race in January, and our efforts provided the necessary air cover for a robust ground game.
The RSLC – Judicial Fairness Initiative implemented a plan to turnout 120,000 more conservatives than in the 2018 Supreme Court race, which would result in a Hagedorn victory by 5,000 votes. The actual result was a 5,962 vote win for Judge Brian Hagedorn.