Kloppenburg tops Prosser by razor-thin margin in Supreme Court race
DEE J. HALL Associated Press madison.com Posted: Wednesday, April 6
With all precincts reporting, challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg edged incumbent David Prosser in a tight race for Wisconsin Supreme Court justice that seems certain to end up in a recount.
With all 3,630 precincts reporting as of 2 p.m. Wednesday, Kloppenburg led by 204 votes, 740,090 to 739,886.
Prosser’s campaign didn’t return a message early Wednesday to the Associated Press. 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 she was trailing earlier Wednesday morning, Kloppenburg told supporters she hadn’t given up.
“We’re still hopeful,” Kloppenburg said, according to AP. “So thank you all and let’s all get a good night’s sleep and see what tomorrow brings.”
The nonpartisan matchup between Prosser, a self-described judicial conservative, and Kloppenburg, an assistant attorney general who has vowed to be impartial on the bench, drew more special-interest money and attention than any Supreme Court race in state history.
Tuesday’s contest was widely considered a referendum on Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s moves to weaken public employee unions and a test of the political strength of the unions to strike back.
The fate of the law, currently tied up in Dane County Circuit Court, likely will be determined by the Supreme Court. A Kloppenburg win would be seen as breaking the court’s 4-3 conservative bloc, which is expected to be sympathetic to the measure.
The race also was being watched around the country as the first test of a coordinated move by Republican governors to cut state spending and undercut public employee unions, traditionally strong supporters of liberal and Democratic candidates.
Business and conservative groups favoring Prosser, 68, weighed in heavily with TV ads, spending almost $2.2 million in an effort to defeat Kloppenburg, 57. The liberal Greater Wisconsin Committee poured an estimated $1.4 million into ads attacking Prosser, according to the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice, which has been tracking spending in the race.
The commercials accused Prosser of declining to prosecute a sex offender priest in the late 1970s while he served as the district attorney of Outagamie County. The ads also charged Prosser would uphold Walker’s political agenda. The incumbent also was criticized for calling Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson a “total bitch.” He has said Abrahamson goaded him to anger, and he faulted her for creating a divisive atmosphere on the court.
Kloppenburg was criticized for her lack of judicial experience and labeled as a “government lawyer” whose prosecution in a state environmental case landed an elderly farmer in jail.
The spending broke the state’s previous record for television spending by non-candidate groups, the Brennan Center said.
“Once again, costly spending and negative attack ads have raged out of control in Wisconsin,” said Charles Hall, a spokesman for Justice at Stake, which opposes special interest spending in court races. “Regardless of who wins this election, public confidence in a fair, impartial court system will inevitably be damaged.”
Both sides were banking on large turnouts in key areas Tuesday to fuel their candidates to victory in the race for a 10-year term on the bench.
Madison has been ground zero for protests against Walker’s collective bargaining bill that drew tens of thousands of demonstrators to the Capitol and around the state. Turnout in Madison was on pace to beat records for a spring election, with Madison estimating 70 percent of registered voters went to the polls.
Prosser campaign manager Brian Nemoir said he was encouraged by high turnouts around Milwaukee. The counties around Wisconsin’s largest city generally vote Republican, helped Prosser, a former Republican speaker of the state Assembly.
Until Walker introduced his bill severely limiting collective bargaining for 175,000 public employees, Prosser was seen as a clear favorite. He got 55 percent of the vote in the four-way Feb. 15 primary to Kloppenburg’s 25 percent.
“Prosser won Milwaukee city and county in the primary, so that needs to turn around — and turn around big-time — for Kloppenburg to have a shot,” said Charles Franklin, a UW-Madison professor of political science.
Franklin said the heavier than normal turnout favored Kloppenburg because it meant voters who sat out the primary were energized to vote in Tuesday’s election.
“Prosser would have sailed to re-election if this (controversy) hadn’t come up,” Franklin said. “I think a lot of the race has become a proxy fight between Walker and the unions.”
The final tally appeared to be held up by vote counting in Eau Claire and Marathon counties, which continued after midnight.
The close results suggest the race may be decided by a recount. Under Wisconsin election law, a candidate has three days after the official results have been tallied to request a recount. The candidate must specify a reason for the request, such as a belief a mistake was made in the counting or some other irregularity.
Prosser has been on the high court for 12 years. He was appointed by then-Gov. Tommy Thompson in 1998 and elected to a 10-year term with no opponent in 2001.
Kloppenburg has worked as an assistant attorney general for 22 years under both Republican and Democratic attorneys general. She handles a variety of legal matters, specializing in environmental regulation and litigation. Prosser labeled her inexperienced. Kloppenburg criticized Prosser for being a partisan because of his repeated references to himself as a judicial conservative.
The nearly $3.6 million in outside spending is for commercials aired through Monday and is expected to increase once Tuesday’s ad buys are tallied, the Brennan Center said.
Even without a final tally, this race has been more expensive than the 2008 contest that drew $3.38 million in outside spending. Then-Burnett County Circuit Judge Mike Gableman defeated incumbent Justice Louis Butler in that race.
The candidates themselves were limited to each spending $100,000 in the primary and $300,000 in the general election under the state’s new Impartial Justice Act — a public-financing program Walker proposes to cut.
The winner of Tuesday’s election will be sworn in Aug. 1.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.