An election that was seen as a referendum on Republican Gov. Scott Walker's efforts to curb union power in Wisconsin remained unresolved, with a Democratic-backed challenger to a conservative state Supreme Court justice ahead by 204 votes, setting the stage for a recount and even more partisan battles.
Challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg, an assistant attorney general, declared victory Wednesday, even though the margin in the unofficial count was .01% of the nearly 1.5 million votes cast.
Her opponent, Justice David Prosser, did not concede, and his campaign said it expected a recount, which has not been done statewide in two decades.
The only thing certain was that the results mean more conflict for the normally genial Midwestern state, which saw its political culture changed after Walker introduced his proposal on unions in February. The bill sparked huge protests, the flight of 14 Democratic state senators to Illinois in a futile attempt to stop its passage and a lawsuit that has halted the law's implementation.
"What's begun is a tough battle that's going to go for the next year and a half," said Curt Anderson, a Republican consultant who cut an ad in support of Prosser last week as conservative groups poured money into the race. "It'll be a long, ugly, bloody summer."
Both parties said the dead-even race showed the public was on their side. Prosser, a former Republican leader in the state Assembly, won 55% of the vote in a primary six weeks ago — before the law passed.
Democrats tried to make an example of him by yoking him to Walker. They pointed out that if Kloppenburg's lead holds, it would be only the second ouster of a state Supreme Court justice at the polls in 41 years.
A Democrat also handily won Walker's old job as Milwaukee County executive, beating a Republican legislator who had voted for Walker's bill. The party picked up another county executive post in a conservative county that had once been home to red-baiting Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
State Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate told reporters that Tuesday's election was "the day that the average Wisconsinite stood up to Scott Walker's overreach.... Six weeks ago [Prosser] was a shoo-in and now he's losing."
Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Republican State Committee, said that the conventional wisdom was that Prosser would lose in a landslide.
"Their momentum is running out of gas," Jefferson said of the Democrats, adding that the heavy voter turnout for a normally overlooked election showed there were many residents who supported Walker's goals. "There are a lot of people out there who think these reforms are past due, and they're not going to sit back and let the Democrats take them away."
Walker's law increases the amount that public workers pay for health insurance and makes them pay for their pensions, which amounts to an 8% pay cut. Unions have agreed to those concessions. But they oppose the main provision of the bill, which would end their ability to collectively bargain for benefits or raises above inflation, stop them from automatically collecting dues and force an annual vote to stay in business.
They contend that those measures are simply intended to kill public-sector unions, which tend to back Democrats. Walker exempted police, state troopers and firefighters, who are more likely to support Republicans, saying he couldn't risk them going on strike. He says the law is needed to rein in a $3.6-billion budget deficit.
The law passed last month, when Republicans in the state Senate used a parliamentary maneuver to vote on it in the absence of Democrats, who had fled to deny the GOP a quorum. A Dane County judge, however, put the measure on hold, ruling that the GOP had apparently violated the state's open meetings law.
Republicans have appealed that ruling, and it is expected to reach the state Supreme Court, where conservatives hold a 4-3 majority. If Kloppenburg wins, that could flip the court's ideological composition to the Democrats. But Prosser would not be replaced until August at the earliest.
Both parties are also seeking recalls of the 16 senators eligible to be recalled this year. Democrats, whom handicappers consider to have a more motivated base and better targets, have announced that they already have enough signatures for one recall. If they recall three Republicans and lose none of their own, they could take over the Senate.
In a Madison news conference, Walker said the results bode poorly for Democrats' hopes in the recall elections. He said that much of Kloppenburg's margin came from huge turnouts in the Democratic strongholds of Milwaukee and Dane counties, the latter of which includes Madison.
"Those Senate recall elections on both the Democrat and Republican side aren't being held in Madison; they aren't being held in Milwaukee," Walker said.
Charles Franklin, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, noted that polls had consistently shown that Walker's proposal was unpopular and put his approval rating in the low 40s. But Tuesday's election, Franklin said, showed "the difference between the total population, including those who are casually involved, and the 33% who turned out yesterday who are motivated."
It may seem like those motivated partisans are ready to battle perpetually, but Jefferson, of the Republican Party, said that he expected the frenzy to fade in time. "At some point," he said, "people are just going to get exhausted."