By Dinesh Ramde
Milwaukee — Labor groups and conservative activists have turned today’s Wisconsin Supreme Court election into an intense and expensive contest that offers the public their first formal opportunity to weigh in on the national fight over union rights.
Election officials in the Democratic strongholds of Madison and Milwaukee have noted remarkably high voter interest in a race Democrats have tried to turn into a referendum on a polarizing union-rights law pushed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
The seven-member high court is officially nonpartisan. But incumbent Justice David Prosser, who is seeking a second 10-year term, is seen as part of a conservative four-justice majority. His challenger, Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg, has been presented as an alternative that would tilt the court’s ideological balance to the left.
Democrats supporting Kloppenburg, who typically would be at a large disadvantage facing an incumbent, have tried to tap into the anger that prompted tens of thousands of protesters to flood Madison as Walker pushed his plan to strip most public workers of nearly all their collective bargaining rights.
The law eventually passed, but is on hold as legal challenges make their way through the courts — and many expect the state Supreme Court ultimately could decide the issue.
Prosser has told The Associated Press he doesn’t necessarily agree with the law. Still, bitter Democrats have portrayed him as a Walker clone and Kloppenburg’s campaign surged during the weeks of protests.
Pat Heiser, 76, said the union struggles weighed heavily on her decision to vote for Kloppenburg.
“I think collective bargaining should be a human right,” Heiser said. “We’re not slaves anymore, that ended in the 1860s.”
Attorney Bill Finke said he normally votes conservative, and supported Prosser in part because he feared Kloppenburg had a political agenda.
“I’m concerned about having an activist judge on the court,” said the 73-year-old from Bayside in suburban Milwaukee.
Outside groups, including the Tea Party Express and national labor organizations, have poured at least $3.1 million into a race that initially wasn’t expected to be competitive. Prosser won a nonpartisan February primary with 55 percent of the vote, while Kloppenburg finished second out of four candidates with just 28 percent.
Walker has said he won’t interpret Tuesday’s results as either an endorsement or indictment of his policies.
Madison city clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl said 7,190 absentee ballots already had been submitted by Monday, outpacing the absentee count from the presidential primary of February 2008. While the ballots haven’t been counted, high turnout in the liberal city is likely to benefit Kloppenburg.
Witzel-Behl predicted a 60 percent turnout, which would be a record high for an April election since Madison started keeping records in 1984. Madison also has hotly contested mayoral and county executive races, but political observers suspect the statewide race is driving many local voters.
Statewide voter turnout still was expected to be about 20 percent, in line with elections that have featured a contested state Supreme Court races in the past decade, according to the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board.
The race was on track to be the most expensive Wisconsin high court contest in history. Groups backing both candidates spent $300,000 to $400,000 per day on TV ads right up until election day, according to a group that studies judicial spending.
While neither candidate’s campaign would discuss internal polling numbers, one political expert said the frenzied pace of last-minute spending suggested a tight race. Mordecai Lee, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said groups usually cut their losses and save their money if polls show their candidate significantly behind.
“Clearly that’s not happening here,” Lee said.
Wisconsin has a recent history of costly Supreme Court races. Outside groups spent a record $3.4 million here in 2008, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a New York University program that tracks spending on judicial races. After a quiet 2009 race and no race in 2010, spending this year had reached $3.1 million through Sunday, and a burst of last-minute ads was expected to bring the total to $3.7 million.
Associated Press writers Jason Smathers in Madison and Carrie Antlfinger in Milwaukee contributed to this report.