MADISON, Wis (Reuters) – The closely watched race for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court remained too close to call on Wednesday with fewer than 600 of the more than 1.4 million votes cast separating incumbent David Prosser from challengerJoAnne Kloppenburg.
The election, the first statewide vote since Republicans passed controversial restrictions on the union rights of public workers, was seen by some political analysts as a referendum on that measure and the scope of the mandate the Republican Party can claim as a result of last fall’s elections.
The struggle over state union powers propelled Wisconsin to center stage in a wider national debate over that issue and government spending.
With 99 percent of the precincts in the state reporting, Prosser had garnered 733,074 votes to Kloppenburg’s 732,489. Among the areas where votes still needed to be counted were precincts in Milwaukeeand Dane County, two typically Democratic strongholds.
The stakes were as a high as the margin was narrow because a lawsuit challenging the anti-union measure, which was pushed by Republican Governor Scott Walker, is already in the courts and making its way to the state Supreme Court, where self-described judicial conservatives, including Prosser, hold a 4-3 majority.
Prosser, a former Republican member of the Assembly who was opposed by Democrats and organized labor but maintained a narrow lead throughout the night, said there was “little doubt” there would be a recount.
Prosser, cast by Democrats and organized labor as a Walker ally who needed to be removed to send a signal to Republicans, called the campaign against him “the most difficult assault on a person’s character in the whole history of the Wisconsin judicial system.”
“We’re still in this race,” he said. “I’ve weathered the nuclear blast and I’m still standing.”
Charles Franklin, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and the co-developer of the website Pollster.com, said: “The huge turnout and even split proved that not only Democrats but also Republicans have been mobilized by the proxy fight over Governor Walker’s agenda.
“It will be a while before the counting and recounting is done but the 50-50 split proves how evenly divided the state is over the Walker agenda. And the turnout shows how deep the feelings run.”
The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School, which monitors campaign ad spending, said $3.5 million had been spent on TV ads in the campaign, making the race the most expensive court contest in Wisconsin’s history.
That reflected both the race’s high stakes as well as the interest of outside groups that either backed or opposed Walker’s measures and purchased so-called “issue ads” in the contest, not covered by campaign finance limits.
Walker has defended the anti-union measure, which eliminates most bargaining rights for public sector workers and requires them to pay more for benefits, as a needed fiscal reform required to help the state close a budget gap.
Critics saw the bill, which eliminates automatic deduction of union dues, as a Republican attack on the single biggest source of funding for the Democratic Party – unions.
The measure sparked the biggest most sustained demonstrations in the state capital since the Vietnam War and triggered 16 recall campaigns, targeting legislators on both sides of the issue.
(Writing by James B. Kelleher; Editing by Jerry Norton)
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