Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The race for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court that has become a proxy for the state’s fight over public sector unions was too close to call as of early Wednesday morning, and the vote appears headed for a recount.

With all but one precinct reporting, challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg led conservative Justice David Prosser by 336 votes early Wednesday afternoon, out of nearly 1.5 million cast.

Just two months ago, Prosser’s easy win of a second 10-year term on the high court would have been a foregone conclusion. In a nonpartisan primary in February, Prosser won 55 percent of the vote, while Kloppenburg, an assistant state attorney general, came in second with 28 percent.

But Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s legislation curtailing the collective bargaining rights of public sector unions reframed the race as a referendum on the controversial law, which he signed in March after the Republican majority in the state Senate forced a vote with no Democrats present.

The law is on hold as a lower state court examines it, and appeals could reach the state Supreme Court. The law’s opponents see Kloppenburg’s place on the court as shifting the majority on the seven-judge panel to the left and more likely to strike down the law, while the law’s backers see Prosser as likely to keep it in place.

More than $5 million in outside money from both sides has been poured into the race, from labor unions, progressive activists, tea party groups and businesses. Blogs across the political spectrum have been abuzz and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin weighed in to voice her support for Prosser. Election officials in Madison, Milwaukee and throughout much of the rest of the state observed higher-than-usual voter turnout for the kind of election that typically brings out only the most dedicated of voters.

With so much riding on the results of the race, neither candidate was ready to declare victory.

Prosser told supporters at an election night party, “There is little doubt there is going to be a recount in this race,” the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported. On Wednesday, Prosser’s campaign director was hopeful that the race might turn out well. “I think we’re confident. We have had a record turnout, but it will be a close election,” Brian Nemoir told the paper.

“We’re still hopeful,” Kloppenburg said. “So thank you all and let’s all get a good night’s sleep and see what tomorrow brings.”

Since then, Democrats have framed the election as a victory, regardless of whether Kloppenburg wins.

“There’s no question that this is a very significant victory regardless of the outcome” of the election, state Sen. Mark Miller said Wednesday on a conference call. “The fact that this Supreme Court candidate rose from relative obscurity” to a neck-and-neck race with an incumbent, he said, “is a real testament to the grassroots work” done by party activists.


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