MADISON, Wis (Reuters) - A routine election for a Wisconsin Supreme Court seat that became a referendum on the state's new curbs on unionized public employees appeared too close to call early on Wednesday with the incumbent clinging to a narrow lead.
With 98 percent of the state's precincts reporting and more than 1.44 million votes counted, incumbent Justice David Prosser, who was backed byRepublicans, held onto a narrow lead over JoAnne Kloppenburg, a candidate backed by Democrats and organized labor, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinelnewspaper and WTMJ-TV.
As of 12:41 a.m. Central time, Prosser had garnered 727,208 of the votes cast while Kloppenburg had tallied 725,205.
Officials in Eau Claire, Wisconsin were hand-counting ballots into the night, according to the websiteWisPolitics.com, which also reported that a number of absentee votes still needed to be counted.
If Prosser, a longtime Wisconsin judge and former Republican legislator, holds onto his lead, it will keep the state high court's 4-3 conservative majority intact.
A Prosser victory would be a setback for Democrats, who channeled their anger about the union restrictions into the Supreme Court election campaign as a proxy vote on Walker's policies.
The race was the first statewide contest since Republicans approved controversial restrictions on the union rights of Wisconsin's public workers last month.
It took on extra importance when opponents of the anti-union measure sued to have the restrictions overturned, a legal challenge that is likely to eventually be heard by the state Supreme Court.
Walker has defended the union restrictions, which eliminate most bargaining rights for public sector workers and require them to pay more for benefits, as a needed fiscal reform 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.
Wisconsin became a focal point of a national debate over labor relations, with massive protests at the state capital and a protracted battle in the state legislature. Several states are considering proposals similar to Wisconsin and union supporters fear the laws curbing collective bargaining could spread across the country.
Under Wisconsin law, election recounts are not automatic no matter how close the race. Candidates must request a recount and the cost is free provided the vote difference is less than one half of 1 percent. For margins greater than that candidates have to pay part or all of the costs, according to Wispolitics.
(Writing by James Kelleher; Editing by Greg McCune)