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UPDATED: A Wisconsin State Supreme Court Race, with a National Following

By Sean Cavanagh — April 06, 2011 2 min read
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Normally, yesterday’s election for a seat on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court wouldn’t get much attention beyond the state’s borders—and probably not even within the state’s borders.

But these could hardly be described as normal times in the state of Wisconsin.

This year’s election, which pits challenger and state Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg against an incumbent on the court, David T. Prosser Jr, has sparked interest from political partisans and advocates across the country.

The race has been billed as a symbolic vote on Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s performance, and specifically his controversial move to strip teachers’ and many other public employees’ collective bargaining rights. Walker signed a bill into law to do that last month, though the measure is being challenged in court. While the race is officially nonpartisan, Prosser’s campaign has received the backing of conservatives, while Kloppenberg has been supported by liberals.

Voters in Wisconsin went to polls Tuesday, and turnout was expected to be unusually high. As of this morning, the race appears too close to call, though the Associated Press is reporting that Prosser appears to have a narrow lead.

[UPDATE: (April 8): AP was originally reporting that Kloppenburg held narrow lead. But it seems that a serious clerical error in one county may have affected those initial vote totals. Prosser now appears to hold a formidable lead of more than 7,000 votes lead over his challenger, though officials from a state agency have indicated they won’t certify the results until they review the mishap.]

Beyond the symbolism, the vote could have direct implications for the collective bargaining law, if a legal challenge to the measure makes its way to Wisconsin’s top court.

The judge’s race is playing out as Democrats are vowing to pursue recall elections against lawmakers who didn’t come down on their party’s side during the fight over the law, which drew massive public protests around the state. Republicans are planning their own recall efforts against Democrats.

The judge’s race, and the recall elections have collectively become a kind of “surrogate vote on collective bargaining and the governor,” Michael Kraft, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, told me in an interview.

He predicted that partisans would have difficulty ousting incumbents through recalls, because of the difficulty of gathering signatures and finding viable challengers. But those efforts are certain to produce a loads of newspaper copy and talk-radio fodder until then.

“There was an understanding, and there probably still is an understanding,” Kraft said, “that the nation’s eyes are on Wisconsin.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.