Running a campaign on qualifications and experience doesn’t inspire voters

In this year’s Wisconsin Supreme Court election, far-right candidate Brian Hagedorn, who ran a campaign of fear and bigotry, narrowly defeated left-leaning candidate Lisa Neubauer. While the margin of victory was within the official recount margin in Wisconsin, Neubauer opted not to request a recount, presumably due to the extremely low likelihood of a recount overturning the original result.

As a general rule, for a Democratic candidate (or, in the case of officially non-partisan, but functionally very partisan, state supreme court races in Wisconsin, the left-of-center candidate) to win a statewide race in Wisconsin, he/she has to do three things:

  1. Get a massive margin and high turnout in the Democratic-leaning portions of Milwaukee, Racine, and Kenosha counties.
  2. Get a massive margin and high turnout in Dane County.
  3. Win most or all of the counties in the southwestern portion of the state along or south of the Wisconsin River and along and west of the Wisconsin State Trunk Highway 78 corridor.

Neubauer was able to accomplish the second and third of those things, but not the first, so low turnout in the Democratic-leaning areas of southwestern Wisconsin cost her the election.

I would passionately argue that the primary reason why someone as repulsively far-right as Hagedorn was able to win was due to Neubauer’s core campaign messaging, which heavily emphasized qualifications, experience, and endorsements and didn’t make much of an effort to highlight Neubauer’s judicial philosophy. For a Democratic or de facto Democratic candidate to win a high-profile election, he/she must offer voters something that is consistent with a left-of-center political philosophy of some kind. This works quite a bit differently in a judicial election (such as a state supreme court election) than in an election for a legislative or executive office, since, in a judicial election, a candidate can’t offer voters a progressive policy wish list. Emphasizing qualifications, experience, endorsements, or anything else of that sort just comes across as elitist to most voters who aren’t strongly inclined to vote for the Democratic or de facto Democratic candidate, and it doesn’t motivate Democratic base voters who aren’t high-info voters.

A good example of a well-run judicial campaign by a left-of-center candidate was that of Rebecca Dallet, who won last year’s Wisconsin Supreme Court election. Although Dallet also emphasized qualifications, experience, and endorsements, Dallet did one thing in her campaign very well that was critical to her success: she emphasized her promise to recuse herself from cases where she had a conflict of interest. This alone gave Wisconsin voters a good enough hint as to what her judicial philosophy is: she’s a left-of-center, good government-minded jurist, and she won her election in a landslide against a different far-right candidate.