A new front opened last Tuesday in Wisconsin's month-long
battle over union rights, which moved to the courts two weeks ago. (See Battle
Over Union Power in WI Shifts to Courts) The state held an
election for Supreme Court justice, which pit Democrat-backed challenger
Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg against Republican-backed Justice
David Prosser, who is seeking his second 10-year term. The first statewide vote
since Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed legislation curbing the power of public
employee unions, the officially nonpartisan election was viewed as a referendum
on the issue.
"This has really become a proxy battle for the governor's positions and
much less a fight about the court itself," said Charles H. Franklin, a
political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Voters appear to be fairly evenly split on the matter. After a night of
seesawing back and forth between the two candidates, Kloppenburg led Prosser
Wednesday by a mere 204 votes out of the nearly 1.5 million cast - a margin of
1/100th of one percent - according to an unofficial tally by the Associated
The voting patterns had a familiar partisan look. County by county, the vote
closely tracked that of another recent election, the 2004 presidential race
between George W. Bush and John Kerry, in which the two candidates were
separated by less than half a percentage point. Kloppenburg carried virtually
the same counties won by Kerry, and Prosser won pretty much the same counties
carried by Bush.
Last week's race shared something else in common with the 2004 contest: a
highly engaged electorate. The turnout for the presidential race was the
highest of any election in the state in half a century. And Tuesday's turnout
was without parallel among recent contested court races: 34 percent, exceeding
the 20 percent, or 874,000 voters, election officials had predicted by 69
percent, or 600,000 voters. Put another way, the nonpartisan contest between
Kloppenburg and Prosser drew nearly as many voters as the state's 2008
presidential primaries, which featured Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John
McCain and Rudy Giuliani.
Kloppenburg claimed victory in the court race on Wednesday.
"Wisconsin voters have spoken, and I am grateful for, and humbled by,
their confidence and trust," she said in a statement.
But on Thursday, Kathy Nickolaus, the clerk of Republican-leaning Waukesha
County, informed state election officials that she would be releasing new vote
totals giving 8,000 additional votes to Prosser, swinging the race
significantly in his favor.
Regardless of the fallout from that bombshell, it will probably be a while
before the contest is settled. Official tallies from all 72 of the state's
counties still have to be submitted. And a recount is almost a certainty - with
lawsuits likely to follow.
As for what last week's "referendum" says about the impact of the
state's union fight on future elections, it appears to be anyone's guess.
"The way it looks right now, both sides are so motivated and so turned out
that it would be very hard to forecast how a vote would go down the road,"
said Charles H. Franklin, a political scientist at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison. (WISCONSIN JOURNAL SENTINEL, REUTERS, NEW YORK TIMES)
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