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Wisconsin race, proxy fight in union conflict, still too close to call

JoAnne Kloppenburg supporters watch election results in Wisconsin
Sue Gatterman, seated second from left, Barbara Schrank and Fred Schrank, fingers crossed, supporters for Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate JoAnne Kloppenburg, all watch election results in the supreme court race between Kloppenburg and incumbent David Prosser in Madison, April 6, 2011. AP Photo/Andy Manis

The race for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court appears to be headed for a recount, leaving no clear end in sight for the latest chapter in the saga over union rights in Wisconsin.

After a long night of counting ballots, Wisconsin officials said today that Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg has a razor-thin lead over Justice David Prosser, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.

As of midday, Kloppenburg had a 235-vote lead with all but one of the state's precincts accounted for. Under state law, a candidate can request a recount free of charge if the spread between votes is less than one half of 1 percent.

It's unusual for a challenger to unseat an incumbent in a Wisconsin Supreme Court race. And in this case, Kloppenburg, a relatively obscure candidate, was up against a former state House Republican leader with higher name recognition.

In spite of that, the race became competitive when activists and Wisconsin residents made it a proxy battle for the larger fight between conservatives and liberals in the state over workers' rights and benefits.

Though both candidates professed to be neutral, liberals have lined up behind Kloppenburg and conservatives behind Prosser.

The state became a hotbed of controversy two months ago when Republican Gov. Scott Walker introduced legislation (called a "budget repair bill") that largely scaled back most public workers' collective bargaining rights. The legislation spurred massive protests in the state and prompted Democratic lawmakers to flee the state to stall its progress. Attempts to recall several Republican and Democratic lawmakers are now underway, and the Wisconsin conflict remains in the national spotlight.

"Wisconsin is ground zero in the Republican war on working families," Adam Green, co-founder of the Progress Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), said today.

Green's organization was one of the national groups that have jumped into the battle over Walker's agenda. PCCC mobilized supporters across the country to make 96,000 calls in support of Kloppenburg in the last week.

Both conservatives and liberals have called the race crucial for their agenda, in no small part because Walker's budget repair bill was signed into law but remains held up in a court challenge. Democrats contend that the Republican-led state House violated procedural rules and passed the bill illegally.

However, even if there were no recount in this case, the victor would not be sworn into the court until August 1, and the case over the budget repair bill is likely to go before the Supreme Court bill before that.

Still, the court could have a role in the numerous potential recall elections gearing up against state senators on both sides of the aisle. Additionally, Democratic state Sen. Chris Larson said a victory for Kloppenburg could have implications for future state legislation. "I think you're going to see a shift in tone from Republicans" if Kloppenburg wins, he said. "Right now, they are almost cocky they're going to be victorious in courts. They've been acting like cowboys because they have the majority in courts."

PCCC also contends that the regional results of the race indicate that liberals could prevail in their attempts to recall Republican state senators. For instance, PCCC co-founder Stephanie Tayor said, Kloppenburg received over 55 percent of the vote in Republican state Sen. Luther Olsen's district.

"This bodes very, very well for the recall campaigns against the senators," Taylor said.

Conservatives, meanwhile, contend that liberals underperformed in this election, given that the liberal base is fired up over Walker's budget repair bill, and few others besides such riled up activists head to the polls in an off-year, April election.

"The organizing power of the unions should have been overwhelming, and Prosser should have been toast even in less-progressive areas of the state," writes conservative commentator Ed Morrissey at "Instead, Wisconsin voters thundered to the polls to support Prosser, and Kloppenburg turned out to do poorly outside of Dane and Milwaukee counties -- and even in Milwaukee, Kloppenburg led by just a 57/43 margin."

"What should have been a slam-dunk if Walker's proposal was really as extreme and disaffecting as unions claim turned out to be an even split," he continued. "Given their power and the investment of time and money by the unions, this is an eye-opening stumble."

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