A Wisconsin Supreme Court election that turned into a referendum on Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s polarizing proposal restricting union rights remained too close to call Wednesday as a little known prosecutor tapped into voter unrest to mount a serious challenge to the incumbent tied to Walker.
Unofficial results showed challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg ahead by a scant 311 votes over incumbent Justice David Prosser, a former Republican speaker of the Assembly who served with Walker. The results were based on 99 percent of precincts reporting, with just five precincts outstanding.
A recount was nearly certain. Kloppenburg’s lead was 0.02 percent of the total votes cast.
Turnout shattered predictions. State officials had expected 20 percent in line with past elections, but Democrats’ efforts to make the election more about Walker and the union fight than the officially nonpartisan Supreme Court race helped push it to 33 percent.
In another race that became largely about Walker and his policies, Democrat Chris Abele defeated Republican state Rep. Jeff Stone to become Milwaukee County executive, the seat Walker held until he was elected governor in November.
Stone voted twice for Walker’s bill taking away nearly all of most state workers’ collective bargaining rights from, which put him on the defensive in the race. Abele won with 61 percent of the vote compared with 39 percent for Stone, based on unofficial results.
Kloppenburg’s supporters, including liberal outside interests that helped make the race the most expensive Supreme Court contest in Wisconsin history, worked to make the election about Walker’s anti-union law which is widely expected to be decided by the Supreme Court. It remains in limbo pending legal challenges.
The race appeared headed toward a recount, which couldn’t be requested until after the state receives the last county’s officially canvassed votes. The county reports are due by April 15 and the deadline to seek a recount would be April 20, although the request could be made sooner.
Kloppenburg, an assistant state attorney general, began her campaign with almost no name recognition and faced long odds against Prosser. The 12-year Supreme Court veteran emerged from a nonpartisan February primary with 55 percent of the vote, while Kloppenburg finished second out of four candidates with just 28 percent.
But opponents of the collective bargaining law redefined the Supreme Court race as a referendum on Walker and all Republicans, working to leverage the anger over the measure against Prosser. They branded him a Walker clone and held Kloppenburg up as the best hope for stopping the measure.
Prosser’s campaign didn’t immediately return a message early Wednesday. However, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that he told supporters at his election-night party that there was “little doubt” there would be a recount.
When the numbers showed her behind, Kloppenburg told supporters she hadn’t given up.
“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.”
Walker has insisted the new law is necessary to help balance the state’s budget, but Democrats see it as a direct assault on unions, a key campaign supporter for the party.
Tens of thousands of people spent weeks protesting the measure at Wisconsin’s Capitol and Democrats in the Senate even fled the state to try to block a vote in that chamber. Walker eventually signed the bill anyway, but the measure is on hold as legal challenges wend their way through the courts. Sixteen state senators — eight Republicans and eight Democrats — face recall efforts over the proposal.
The measure’s opponents ultimately hope a Kloppenburg upset would tilt the Supreme Court’s ideological balance to the left and set the stage for the court to strike the law down. A legal challenge already is before the court, although the justices have not decided whether to consider it. They also want to show the Republican senators facing recalls that they’re next to go.
Prosser pushed back, disavowing his GOP connections. He accused pro-labor groups of hijacking the race and argued Kloppenburg was so closely tied to them she couldn’t ethically rule on the law.
Interest in what could have been an otherwise sleepy race skyrocketed.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a New York University program that tracks spending on judicial races, outside groups, including the Tea Party Express and national labor organizations, had poured a record $3.5 million into race through Monday.
Deborah MacFarland, 67, and her husband, Robert, 69, of Bayside, said the issue helped persuade them to vote for Kloppenburg.
“I can’t stand Walker. I can’t stand conservative Republicans. … I have had enough of it,” Deborah MacFarland said.
But Kelly Bodoh, 37, a self-described Libertarian from Sun Prairie, picked Prosser, saying she was upset that Democratic senators fled the state.
“The way the past couple of months have gone down in Madison made me very distrustful of that faction,” she said. “Emotions and disrespect ruled the response to the … bill.”
Walker has said he wouldn’t interpret the election results as either an endorsement or indictment of his policies.
Wisconsin law does not provide for automatic recounts. Instead, candidates have three days after official results are tallied to request one. They must provide a specific reason for such an effort to state election officials, such as a mistake in counting or some other irregularity.
Associated Press writer Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee contributed to this report.