A Neubauer victory would have continued a blue pattern in the state, extending back to a decisive win by a liberal candidate for a seat on the state Supreme Court last spring and through to last November’s gubernatorial contest, in which the Democrat Tony Evers ousted the Republican Scott Walker.
Read: ‘Wisconsins have never seen anything like this’
Until Tuesday, Democrats seemed to enjoy a clear advantage in enthusiasm in Wisconsin. Opposition to President Donald Trump fueled massive voter turnout in Madison and Milwaukee last fall, and that energy showed no signs of abating. Republicans were seen as discouraged and disheartened.
So what happened?
“The base woke up,” one GOP official texted me.
A backlash built against attacks on Hagedorn for his involvement in founding a Christian school. Critics charged that the school, the K–8 Augustine Academy in Waukesha County, banned LGBT students and staff, because its code of conduct banned “immoral sexual activity.” The code defined that as “any form of touching or nudity for the purpose of evoking sexual arousal apart from the context of marriage between one man and one woman.” Hagedorn was also criticized for speaking with social conservative groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, and for suggesting that he agreed with the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent in a Texas case overturning anti-sodomy laws. In a blog post, Hagedorn wrote, “The idea that homosexual behavior is different than bestiality as a constitutional matter is unjustifiable.” He also wrote in a 2005 blog post that “Christianity is the correct religion, and that insofar as others contradict it, they are wrong.”
The controversy is what led the state realtors to rescind their endorsement of Hagedorn. But Hagedorn pushed back, insisting that he was being attacked for his religious faith, and social conservatives rallied around him. “Some of the arguments made against me are a blatant attempt not just against me but against people of faith more generally," Hagedorn said at a campaign event.
“The backlash was overwhelming,” one Republican activist told me. “The left made this about bigotry, but Christians saw this as an attack on their faith.” Others saw a replay of attacks on Justice Brett Kavanaugh, which helped turn out Republican voters last fall.
As central as the fight over religion was, Republicans in Wisconsin cited two other major factors in the conservative resurgence.
After a controversial lame-duck legislative session, liberal groups got a judge from liberal Dane County to invalidate the entire legislative session, including all the appointments made by then-Governor Walker and confirmed by the legislature. The decision has since been stayed by the court of appeals and is likely to be overturned, but the sweeping ruling revived memories among Wisconsin Republicans of previous judicial rulings that sought to invalidate other conservative victories.