April 6, 2011- A divisive budget battle between labor unions and Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) turned a state Supreme Court race into a nationally watched bellwether on the electorate's mood heading into a recall campaign and the 2012 elections.
Nearly 1.5 million people turned out to vote, representing 33.5 percent of voting-age adults — 68 percent higher than the 20 percent turnout officials had expected. JoAnne Kloppenburg has already declared victory, with the vote tallies showing her beating incumbent David Prosser by just a couple hundred votes. The race is expected to head to a recount.
Significantly, 19 counties that went for Walker in the 2010 elections this time flipped and went for Kloppenburg, including LaCrosse (59 percent), Sauk (56 percent) and Dunn (56 percent).
There were no party affiliations on the ballot, but Kloppenburg was heavily backed by Democrats and Prosser by Republicans, making it a fierce proxy battle for the two parties.
On a conference call with reporters Wednesday afternoon, Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate was jubilant over the results, saying they represent a "watershed moment for Wisconsin and a Waterloo for Scott Walker."
"It should give Republicans, who are — for the moment — in the majority, pause about how they proceed in enacting Walker's terrible budget," he added.
Tate pointed to the pick-ups in the western part of the state, which went heavily for Kloppenburg. Even in counties that Democrats won in 2010, Tate was happy that the margins were wider than they were in November. For example, Tom Barrett, who lost the race for governor to Walker in November, won Eau Claire County with 51 percent of the vote. This time, Kloppenburg captured Eau Claire with 58 percent.
"In Wisconsin, we have a … very high number of independent voters, who are not wedded to one party or another," said Tate, explaining the swing.
The Wisconsin Republican Party did not return a request for comment. But Prosser's team has already said that it is working on the possibility of a recount.
"We are assembling our legal team and continuing to watch our vote totals," Prosser Campaign Director Brian Nemoir said. "We are encouraged by the turnout and believe in a record-setting Supreme Court election there's plenty of reason to believe there's unrecognized opportunity to deliver a victory."
Prosser was a strong ally of the governor, and both conservatives and progressives invested a significant amount of resources into the race. Nemoir previously admitted that Prosser's campaign was about "protecting the conservative judicial majority and acting as a common sense complement to both the new administration and Legislature."
A new justice won't be sworn in until Aug. 1, and according to Lester Pines, a senior partner at the firm Cullen Weston Pines & Bach LLP in Madison, Wis., it's unlikely that the high court would consider a challenge to the governor's anti-union bill before then.