MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates Lisa Neubauer and Brian Hagedorn were scheduled to face each other Friday in the first of two debates ahead of the April 2 election.
The winner will replace retiring liberal Justice Shirley Abrahamson on the court that is currently controlled 4-3 by conservatives. Hagedorn and Neubauer are both appeals court justices.
While the race won’t change control of the court this year, a Neubauer win would make it possible for liberals to gain the majority in 2020 when conservative Justice Dan Kelly is up for election. That race takes place during a presidential primary that should have heavy turnout by Democrats — but not by Republicans, with Trump at this stage unlikely to face a serious primary challenge.
Conservatives have controlled the Wisconsin Supreme Court since 2008. If liberals can take it over, they would have control until at least 2025. The winner will serve a 10-year term.
Hagedorn released a statewide television ad hours before the debate Friday in which he branded Neubauer as a tool of liberal special interests and alleged she would turn the court into a “political playground.” The ad features a picture of Neubauer in between photos of Hillary Clinton and former Democratic U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
Holder was in Wisconsin on Thursday and Friday to rally support for Neubauer. A group he runs was spending $350,000 on the race, even though Neubauer has asked that his organization and others stay out of the race.
Neubauer has also benefited from more than $400,000 in spending by other liberal groups and unions that are helping to get her elected. The conservative Americans for Prosperity has spent about $17,000 to canvass for Hagedorn, but other groups that typically get involved in Wisconsin Supreme Court races — like the chamber of commerce — have been inactive.
Neubauer’s husband, Jeff, was a former Democratic legislator and past chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party while her daughter, Greta Neubauer, is currently a state representative from Racine. Neubauer attended a climate change march in 2017 with her daughter to protest the environmental agenda of President Donald Trump.
Hagedorn worked as former Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s attorney for five years before he appointed him to the appeals court in 2015. Hagedorn has spent much of the race defending his personal conservative beliefs. Opponents have pointed to a blog he wrote while a law school student in the mid-2000s, his founding of a conservative private school that allows for expelling students who are gay and his being paid $3,000 to give speeches at meetings of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a group that supported criminalizing sodomy and sterilizing transgender people and has been deemed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In his blog, Hagedorn wrote about his evangelical Christian beliefs, calling Planned Parenthood a “wicked organization” and denouncing court rulings favoring gay rights by likening homosexuality to bestiality.
Hagedorn has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association and two current Supreme Court justices, along with three former justices.
Neubauer was appointed to the appeals court in 2007 by former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. Neubauer was elected to the appeals court in 2008, re-elected in 2014 and has been chief judge since 2015. She spent almost 20 years as an attorney in private practice.
Nearly 350 judges have endorsed Neubauer, giving her 98 percent of the judicial endorsements so far in the race.