MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Brian Hagedorn accused his opponent Lisa Neubauer of lying, misleading voters and maligning him over his personal beliefs during a spirited final debate Tuesday one week before the April 2 election. Neubauer said she was presenting facts.
The winner will replace retiring liberal Justice Shirley Abrahamson for a 10-year term. The court is now tilted 4-3 to conservatives, but a Neubauer victory would give liberals a chance to win back the majority next year. She is backed by Democrats, unions and other liberal groups, while Hagedorn has the support of Republicans and conservative groups in the officially nonpartisan race.
Neubauer, as she has throughout the campaign, criticized Hagedorn in the debate over blog posts he wrote in the mid-2000s when he was a law school student in which he called Planned Parenthood a "wicked organization." Hagedorn also denounced court rulings favoring gay rights by likening homosexuality to bestiality. Neubauer also faulted him for founding a private Christian elementary school in 2016 that bars homosexual teachers and allows for the expulsion of gay students.
Hagedorn, an evangelical Christian, said the code of conduct for teachers at the school he founded is "no different than you would find at almost any other school out there."
He said Neubauer was "sabotaging her integrity" to win the election. He said she can't point to any rulings he's made since becoming a judge in 2015 that show the influence of his personal or partisan beliefs. Hagedorn accused her of "just misleading people ... she simply wants to call me names" and "deliberately trying to undermine my reputation."
"She's trying to caricature me," Hagedorn said. "Judge Neubauer's lying."
Neubauer said she was "not making stuff up" and "rejects out of hand" that she was unfairly attacking Hagedorn. Instead, she said she was pointing out facts about Hagedorn that voters need to know before casting ballots. She said the race is about who voters feel will give them a fair shake as a justice on the state's highest court.
Partisan interests have been spending for each candidate, with a Republican group announcing Tuesday it would spend $1 million on ads and mailings to help Hagedorn. That came after former Democratic U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder pledged to spend $350,000 to help Neubauer.
Neubauer said during the debate she would not sit on cases involving Holder's group. But she did not say whether she would recuse herself from cases involving other groups that Holder funds. Hagedorn, who was former Gov. Scott Walker's attorney for five years, said he would consider stepping down from cases involving issues he worked on.
To date, outside spending had been overwhelmingly in favor of Neubauer. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign estimated that Neubauer benefited from almost seven times more in outside spending than Hagedorn, or $1.2 million compared to his about $188,000.
Those supporting Neubauer include the Greater Wisconsin Committee, a liberal advocacy group that had spent at least $850,000 on television and digital advertising. The Service Employees International Union has spent about $131,000 on door hangers and canvassing, and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin has spent $122,000 on online advertising and canvassers, according to the Democracy Campaign's tally.
As of last week, the only outside spending benefiting Hagedorn was about $131,000 from the conservative group Americans for Prosperity. But the Republican State Leadership Committee's Judicial Fairness Initiative announced Tuesday it was putting in $1 million in the final week of the race, even though allies of Neubauer said the television ad spending portion is around $500,000.
Hagedorn has also received about $108,000 from the Wisconsin Republican Party and about $11,000 from local GOP chapters. Most of the state party money has been reimbursed by Hagedorn, which basically allows the state party to do campaign work for him using money he provides.