A normally humdrum Wisconsin election that became a referendum on Republican Gov. Scott Walker's battle against public employee unions was too close to call Tuesday night, as Democrats tried to oust a conservative state Supreme Court justice and shift the balance of power in the state.
With 97% of the precincts reporting, Justice David Prosser and his challenger, Assistant Atty. Gen. JoAnne Kloppenburg, were in a virtual dead heat, the lead seesawing from one to the other as returns came in. The winner was not expected to be known before Wednesday, if then.
More than $3 million in outside money poured into the technically nonpartisan contest, which became especially contentious after the Legislature passed Walker's labor bill in March.
In a sign of how heated the reelection campaign became for Prosser, who was seeking his second 10-year term, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin weighed in on his behalf and national "tea party" groups ran ads attacking Kloppenburg as anti-business. The last time Prosser ran, he was unopposed.
Prosser's campaign had vowed last year that he would be a "complement" to Walker and the newly elected Republican legislative majority. But that was before Walker proposed curtailing collective bargaining rights for most public workers in Wisconsin.
The proposal triggered huge labor protests, the flight of 14 Democrats to Illinois in a futile attempt to prevent Senate action, and contentious court challenges likely to reach the state high court.
A judge in Madison put the union measure on hold last month, finding it had been passed in violation of the open-meetings law. The state's Republican attorney general is appealing.
Democrats and their union allies have poured money and enthusiasm into the otherwise overlooked judicial race.
State officials had forecast a turnout of 20%. But by Tuesday evening, election officials were reporting long lines of people waiting to vote. Polling stations in Fond du Lac ran out of ballots, and in Milwaukee and Madison, county clerks projected that as many as 60% of eligible voters were going to the polls.
"The political impact is almost impossible to understate," said Charles Franklin, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "The defeat of Justice Prosser as a result of the blowback against the governor's politics would send a powerful signal to Republicans across the state that the governor has overreached…. If Justice Prosser holds on, that says to Republicans that they can weather this storm."
The GOP lost at least one symbolic race Tuesday night — for Walker's old job as Milwaukee county executive. Democrat Chris Abele crushed Republican state Rep. Jeff Stone, who had supported Walker's union bill. With 96% of precincts reporting, Abele had 60% to Stone's 40%. Stone's vote for Walker's bill became a campaign issue.
In another response to the labor bill, activists are seeking to recall 16 state senators — eight Democrats and eight Republicans — the maximum number that can be challenged this year. State law only allows recall drives to begin a year after politicians are elected.
Democrats are widely believed to have the upper hand because their base is furious about Walker's law. They say they have already collected enough signatures to trigger at least one recall in the summer. If Democrats could oust three state senators and incur no losses, they would take control of the Senate.
And if Kloppenburg wins the judicial contest, the Supreme Court would lose its 4-3 conservative majority. Prosser would not step down until August, however, so he might still be on the bench to rule on Walker's labor law.
In addition to ending collective bargaining for most state workers, the law would require them to pay more for healthcare and pensions, amounting to an 8% pay cut. Workers agreed to the healthcare and pension concessions, but Walker insisted that his measure was vital not only to balance the state budget but to give local governments more power to balance theirs.
Democrats called it a political power grab, noting that police, firefighter and state trooper unions — which are more likely to back the GOP — are exempt from the law.