MILWAUKEE (CN) – The election of a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice was too close to call this morning, and likely headed to a recount, as furor over the state’s anti-union law propelled Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg from far behind into a dead heat with incumbent Justice David Prosser. Prosser led by 585 votes early this morning, with more than 1.4 million votes cast.
Prosser was expected to win a second 10-year term in a walk until Gov. Scott Walker and his Republican legislative majority pushed through the so-called Budget Repair Bill in a special session, using legislative tricks to pass it without a quorum, and then to publish in defiance of a judge’s order.
The resulting political bloodbath energized Democrats and public workers.
Although nominally a nonpartisan race, Prosser, who served in the Legislature under Walker, is viewed as a Republican ally, and Kloppenburg as the Democrats’ candidate.
Mike Tate, chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, said on the party website that the election returns should send “a clear signal to an intransigent governor that his methods and his philosophy have been rejected by the people; and it should give Republicans who are, for the moment, in the majority, pause about how they proceed with enacting Walker’s terrible budget.”
Campaign spending of more than $3.5 million broke records for a Wisconsin Supreme Court election, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. The biggest spender was the Greater Wisconsin Committee, largely funded by unions and the Democratic Party, which spent more than $1.3 million.
Prosser, a former Republican Speaker of the Assembly who calls himself a judicial conservative, was appointed to the state Supreme Court in 1998 by Gov. Tommy Thompson, and ran unopposed in 2001.
He won this year’s primary on Feb. 15 with 55 percent of the vote in a four-way race; Kloppenburg took just 25 percent.
Prosser, who publicly promised in 2010 “to act as ‘complement’ to Walker,” states on his website: “I believe I have earned a reputation as a fair and reasonable justice who will apply the law fairly, not legislate from the bench.”
Neither candidate’s supporters were above slimy attack ads.
Kloppenburg’s supporters aired a commercial stating: “David Prosser refuses to prosecute accused pedophile priest despite victim’s mother’s pleas – bargains with bishop. Priest sent out of town, not to jail.”
Prosser’s camp claimed that Kloppenburg had put an 80-year-old farmer in jail for not planting native grasses in a field.
If, as is to be expected, the state Supreme Court eventually decides the constitutionality and other legal challenges to Walker’s anti-union bill, the winner of Tuesday’s race is expected to cast the deciding vote from the bench, where right-wing justices now hold a 4-3 majority.
With 99 percent of the vote counted, Prosser led Kloppenburg by 585 votes – 733,074 to 732,489 – at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, Central Daylight Time. In such a close race, either candidate can ask for a recount under state law.