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Angry Wisconsin voters show up for the fight

Turnout heavy as high court justice staggers

Donna Deuster, assistant city clerk in Racine, Wis., verified bags of ballots yesterday. More than 15,600 votes were cast in the city. Donna Deuster, assistant city clerk in Racine, Wis., verified bags of ballots yesterday. More than 15,600 votes were cast in the city. (Mark Hertzberg/ Journal Times)
By Monica Davey
New York Times / April 7, 2011

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WAUKESHA, Wis. — Union supporters and Democrats unleashed their fury over Scott Walker, the Republican governor, and his efforts to diminish collective bargaining rights at the ballot box on Tuesday.

Angry voters accomplished a task some had said was impossible: They locked a veteran State Supreme Court justice, who is considered conservative, in a razor-thin race with an opponent much less well-known. (The opponent declared victory yesterday.)

And voters rejected a Republican lawmaker for Milwaukee County executive — yet another contest that had been transformed, at least by some infuriated voters, into a referendum over the state’s new Republican leadership.

Democrats trumpeted the outcome as the beginning of the end for Walker and the Republicans who swept into control of the state in November. “What the vote showed is that people really woke up to Walker’s agenda,’’ State Senator Chris Larson, a Democrat, said yesterday. “And I’d say they’re only getting warmed up.’’

But while anti-Walker forces turned out in remarkable numbers Tuesday, others did too: a similar number of conservative-leaning voters. State officials had predicted a 20 percent turnout for the usually sleepy springtime election, but more than 30 percent of voters statewide wound up casting ballots. Some polling places ran out of “I voted’’ stickers.

And although the Supreme Court race was officially deemed nonpartisan, the vote appeared to reflect an almost evenly split philosophical divide — give or take a few hundred votes — among more than 1.4 million voters. The race was so nearly perfectly split that a recount seemed likely.

And so the Republicans were busy trumpeting the outcome, too.

“The Democrats and the unions threw everything they had at that election and the silent majority of voters turned out and beat them back,’’ said Scott Fitzgerald, the Republican leader in the State Senate. “I’m very pleased with these results.’’

What seems beyond debate, though, is that Wisconsin voters have rarely been quite so split, so worked up, so angry.

And that means there is a new level of uncertainty and volatility as state political leaders brace for highly unusual efforts to recall 16 state legislators — an even number of Democrats and Republicans — over their roles in the fight over cuts to collective bargaining. That uncertainty will also mean presidential hopefuls will have a more difficult time gauging their odds next year in Wisconsin.

“The way it looks right now, both sides are so motivated and so turned out that it would be very hard to forecast how a vote would go down the road,’’ said Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The Milwaukee County executive job needed to be filled because Walker gave it up to become governor in January. Chris Abele, a political newcomer who used some of his own wealth to finance his bid, easily beat Jeff Stone, a Republican in the State Assembly.

That race was also supposed to be nonpartisan, but critics of Stone regularly noted that he had voted in favor of Walker’s bill to curtail collective bargaining rights.

But the Supreme Court contest — once imagined as a dull race with an all-but-certain outcome — captured the greatest interest yesterday.

As unofficial counts from the last voting districts trickled in, the margin between Justice David Prosser, who has served on the court for 12 years, and JoAnne Kloppenburg, an assistant attorney general, remained extremely slim.

By midafternoon, the Associated Press tally showed Kloppenburg with a 204-vote lead with all precincts counted, and she declared victory.

The state has no automatic recount provision in such cases, but a candidate may request a recount, and many here said they expected as much. Prosser’s representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

Whatever the outcome, anti-Walker forces and Republicans each claimed victory, at least for the show of voter strength.

Incumbent justices have lost election bids in this state, but it is rare. Throughout a bitter campaign, with heavy advertising financed by conservative and liberal groups, each candidate claimed to be impartial and nonpartisan when it came to the courtroom, while also suggesting that the other was anything but.

Until several weeks ago, when the fight over collective bargaining and Walker’s agenda boiled over in Madison, Prosser had been expected to win easily.

But as the fight in Madison grew, Prosser, who is seen by many as part of a 4-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court and who once served as a Republican legislative leader, became a focus of those irked by Walker.

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