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The 2019 Wisconsin Supreme Court election is now over—nearly. What looked like an election that would blow through like a breeze instead stormed through like a tornado. To the surprise of some, conservatives flipped the seat they wanted to capture for decades. They once again own a 5-2 majority on the Court.

Now that the election is over, what are some of the key takeaways? There are a few.

Grassroots politics still matter.

Conservatives and Republicans came out to vote. Hagedorn outperformed expectations in a number of areas. In 2016, Justice Rebecca Bradley won 68.3% of the vote in Waukesha County. Last night, Hagedorn won 68.5%. Bradley won 72% of the vote in Washington County in 2016. Last night, Hagedorn won 75%. He matched her numbers in many other counties as well. Turnout matters. Conservative grassroots organizations earned the right to be pleased with themselves last night. Their efforts to get out the vote won the day.

Money may buy a lot of things, but it does not buy victory.

Judge Neubauer and those who supported her outspent Judge Hagedorn by $2 million dollars. Many of the traditional conservative groups sat on the sidelines this election, leaving a financial void for Hagedorn. But that didn’t cost him the election. Money may buy a lot of things, but it cannot guarantee success.

The 2020 races will be closer than people think.

For better or worse, Wisconsin is still ground zero for politics. In 2018, the Democrats did very well electorally. Last night, conservatives did well. What to make of those swings? For starters, last night was different than the 2018 midterm elections. Lower turnout elections, like yesterday’s, tend to favor Republicans—at least historically. But the bigger difference between the two elections was that last night Republican and conservative voters had a foil: liberal Democrats.

Conservative voters were able to evaluate the Evers administration’s first few months. And many of them came out to vote against it. They surely also witnessed the nascent Democrat presidential politics, and that party’s move to the left. What they saw likely caused them to come out to vote.

In 2018, Republicans played defense. They had to defend Governor Walker and President Trump. Democrats took advantage of that. Last night, liberals and Democrats had to play some defense. And conservatives took advantage of that.

Republicans and conservatives must perform better in Dane County and Milwaukee.

Despite the conservative victory last night, there are warning signs for Republicans. Dane County is the fastest growing part of Wisconsin right now. Most of the people who vote in Dane County tend to be liberal. And they vote. Regularly. To offset these numbers, Republicans must maximize their turnout elsewhere in the state, particularly in the Milwaukee suburbs. At some point, however, that approach will no longer survive. The number of voters in Dane and Milwaukee will offset GOP gains elsewhere in the state. If Republicans want to increase their vote totals in statewide offices, they will need to run candidates that can hold on to traditional Republican areas but also win over voters—at least more of them—in Dane County and Milwaukee.

Wisconsin is still divided politically.

The fact that this election was so close is testament to our divided populace. Our leaders have a lot of work to do to bring people together. It can be done. So long as we all respect the governing institutions that have sustained us for so long, we’ll be in good shape. And so long as our leaders take the time to recognize voters’ differences and appreciate the fact that other people have different ideas—and respect them—Wisconsin will remain in good stead.

– Ryan Owens is the Director of the Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership and a Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


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