MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The liberal candidate in Wisconsin’s Supreme Court race conceded Wednesday, deciding against a recount eight days after the election showed her conservative opponent ahead by 6,000 votes in a race seen as an early measure of a key battleground in the 2020 presidential campaign.
Lisa Neubauer’s concession to Brian Hagedorn means the conservative majority on the court will increase from 4-3 to 5-2 when he takes the seat in August. Conservatives will hold control until at least 2023, denying liberals a change to take the majority in next year’s election.
The Hagedorn win also gives Republicans a boost of confidence heading into the 2020 presidential election year, with his victory coming after a string of stinging losses last year.
Republicans and Democrats alike pointed to the thin margin as a sign of how hotly contested Wisconsin will be in 2020. The tight race came after Republican Scott Walker lost the governor’s race by just over a point in 2018 and President Donald Trump carried Wisconsin by just under a point in 2016.
Liberals were optimistic they could win the seat, especially after a Democratic-backed candidate won in 2018 and Democrats swept statewide elections in November, most notably ousting Walker.
Neubauer got out to an early fundraising lead and appeared to have the momentum, until a surge of more than $1 million from Republican groups poured into the state in the final week of the race making the argument that Hagedorn was being unfairly criticized for his Christian beliefs.
President Donald Trump tweeted congratulations to Hagedorn, calling it a “big surprise win” in a “very important Supreme Court seat.”
Neubauer said in a Wednesday statement that the late burst of outside money against her was the difference-maker in the race. She also benefited from more than $1 million in outside spending.
“I hope future races see less influence from outside special interests,” Neubauer said. “He said that he was running to get partisan influences out of our courts, and I hope he lives up to his promise.”
Neubauer called Hagedorn on Wednesday morning to concede and wish him good luck. Canvassing from the majority of Wisconsin’s counties showed a change of less than 200 votes in the total, both campaigns said.
The race was the closest for Wisconsin Supreme Court since 2011, when Justice David Prosser won by just over 7,000 votes, or four-tenths of a point.
Unofficial results showed Neubauer trailing by just under half a percentage point. That is within the 1-point margin for a recount, but Neubauer would have had to pay for it because it wasn’t within the quarter of a point margin to make it free.
Hagedorn, 41, is a former member of the Kenosha County Republican Party and served as a law clerk for state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, whose victory in 2008 gave conservatives control of the court. Hagedorn served as an assistant attorney general, worked in private practice and was Walker’s chief legal counsel for nearly five years. Walker appointed him to the state appeals court in 2015 and Hagedorn won election two years later.
Hagedorn spent much of the race defending his personal conservative beliefs . Opponents pointed to a blog he wrote while a law school student in the mid-2000s and his founding of a conservative private school that allows for expelling students who are gay. Hagedorn was also paid $3,000 to give speeches at meetings of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a group that supported criminalizing sodomy and sterilizing transgender people.
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 was endorsed by the National Rifle Association and Wisconsin Right to Life.
Hagedorn will serve a 10-year term and replace retiring liberal Justice Shirley Abrahamson, who is battling cancer. A former chief justice, the 85-year-old Abrahamson is the longest-serving member of the court, now in her 43rd year.