Arch-conservative Judge Brian Hagedorn can attribute his recent Wisconsin Supreme Court victory in part to a group of around a dozen companies who donated to an organization that works to elect GOP state candidates, a recent ThinkProgress analysis found.
Hagedorn, who has served on the Wisconsin Court of Appeals since 2015 when he was appointed by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, beat Judge Lisa Neubauer, a progressive jurist also serving on the appeals court, by a razor-thin margin. Neubauer conceded last week’s election for a 10-year term on Wednesday.
The difference maker in Neubauer’s defeat appears to have been a massive last-minute ad campaign from a national Republican group that works to elect conservatives at the state level.
Hagedorn was a self-described conservative soldier in the culture wars in the 2000s, writing on his blog that legalizing gay sex was akin to promoting bestiality. He took thousands of dollars in honorarium payments for speeches to the Alliance Defending Freedom. He also came under fire during his 2019 campaign for serving on the board of an elementary school that bans LGBTQ students, parents, and teachers.
Though Neubauer had outpaced Hagedorn in fundraising in the final weeks of the campaign, the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) swept into Wisconsin in the days before the April 2 election with $1.3 million dollars worth of TV, radio, mail, and digital ads urging his election, and tying him to right-wing hero Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The unofficial results indicate Hagedorn won by less than 6,000 votes — 605,728 to 599,768.
Although the tax-exempt RSLC’s Judicial Fairness Initiative is based in Washington, D.C., the ads warned that “radical out-of-state special interest groups” were spending millions to elect Neubauer and “spreading false attacks against conservative, rule-of-law Judge Brian Hagedorn, just like they did against Justice Kavanaugh.” The initiative’s 2018 funding came from transfers from the RSLC’s main account, which in turn received millions from corporate interests.
According to their filings with the Internal Revenue Service, the RSLC’s list of corporate donors includes:
- $780,000 from Altria Group, the tobacco company that makes Marlboro cigarettes and owns Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.
- $534,315 from Reynolds American, the tobacco company that makes Newport and Camel cigarettes.
- $475,550 from BNSF Railway, one of North America’s largest freight railroad companies.
- $373,147 from GCI Communications, an Alaska-based telecommunications provider.
- $350,000 from Pepperidge LLC, a West Virginia real estate leasing company.
- $350,000 from Contract Drafting LLC, a Wyoming-based company.
- $250,000 from Anthem Inc., a for-profit health insurance company in the Blue Cross/Blue Shield network.
- $230,199 from Centene Management Company, a managed care health services company.
- $225,399 from AstraZeneca PLC, the pharmaceutical company whose products include Symbicort, Nexium, and Crestor.
- $210,335 from Marathon Petroleum, a large fossil fuel company.
- $206,028 from Eli Lilly and Company, the pharmaceutical company.
- $203,765 from Koch Industries, Charles and David Koch’s petrochemical behemoth.
A spokesperson for Altria noted that the company does not participate in judicial elections and expressly instructed the RSLC not to use any of its donations to help elect or defeat judges. All Altria donations to the company come with a letter, they noted, that says: “It is also our understanding that the funds: (1) will not be used to support, directly or indirectly, the Judicial Fairness Initiative, or any other effort directly or indirectly related to judicial elections; and (2) will be segregated from the funding RSLC utilizes for the Judicial Fairness Initiative and any other program involved in judicial elections.”
Among the largest individual contributions were $1,000,000 each from billionaire casino mogul and conservative mega-donor Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam and $500,000 from hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer.
The narrow victory leaves conservatives firmly in control of the state’s top court, five seats to two. With the way the court’s terms are staggered — barring any midterm resignations — conservatives now will control the majority until at least 2023.
This is especially significant in a state with a highly gerrymandered congressional and legislative map that ensures a GOP majority, even in years like 2018 when more voters cast ballots for Democratic candidates. With legal challenges to these maps ongoing in Wisconsin — and more likely after the 2021 decennial redistricting — there was major incentive for the RSLC to spend heavily in 2019 to lock in its control of the state’s legislature for years to come.
ThinkProgress reached out to the other companies listed above for comment on their donations but did not immediately hear back.