MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin voters sent Republican Gov. Scott Walker a clear message about their unhappiness with his muscling through a law restricting union rights by sending a once runaway state Supreme Court race toward a near-certain recount and filling the governor’s former post with a Democrat.
While Walker downplayed the significance of Tuesday’s elections Wednesday, saying they were skewed by exceptional turnout in the liberal cities of Madison and Milwaukee, Democrats warned they were only a sign of what’s to come. Recall efforts have been launched against 16 state senators from both parties for their support or opposition to the bill eliminating most public employees’ collective bargaining rights.
“This continues to add fuel to the tremendous fire of enthusiasm and passion to recall the Republican senators that support Scott Walker’s backwards priorities for the state,” Wisconsin Democratic Party chairman Mike Tate said of the election results.
In the most closely watched race, a little-known assistant state attorney harnessed union supporters’ anger to come from behind and possibly unseat a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice often associated with Walker.
Justice David Prosser won a nonpartisan, four-way primary with 55 percent of the vote. The general election was expected to be a runaway after second-place finisher JoAnne Kloppenburg got half as many votes.
But Wednesday, unofficial returns showed Kloppenburg with a slim 204-vote lead over Prosser. His campaign has said a recount is expected.
In another significant race, Democrat Chris Abele bested Republican state Rep. Jeff Stone to become the next Milwaukee County executive. Walker held that post until he was elected governor in November, and Stone twice voted for his anti-union bill.
Walker discounted Abele’s win, saying Milwaukee County is historically Democratic. He also chalked up the close Supreme Court race to heavy voting in Milwaukee and Madison. Turnout in the state capital, which was rocked by three weeks of protests that drew as many as 85,000 people to one rally, was 54 percent – twice the level usually seen in an April election.
“You have two very different worlds in this state,” the governor said. “You have a world driven by Madison and a world driven by everybody else out across the state of Wisconsin.”
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee political scientist Mordecai Lee, a former Democratic legislator, more or less agreed with that sentiment. Tuesday’s elections showed that the state is divided, and Walker doesn’t have the overwhelming support from a silent majority as he has claimed for the past two months, Lee said.
“There’s exactly 50 percent of the voters who like what the Republicans are doing, and 50 percent don’t like it,” he said.
Given that, Republicans worried about re-election could ask their leaders to drop the union rights provisions, he said.
“The rank-and-file is going to turn to the leadership and say, ‘We don’t want to hang on this thing anymore. We want to pass the collective bargaining bill with the financial concessions and we’ll leave them the collective bargaining and we won’t have this millstone around our necks,'” he said.
Along with eliminating most of public workers’ bargaining rights, the law requires them to contribute more to their health care and pensions, changes that amount to an average 8 percent pay cut.
State GOP executive director Mark Jefferson expressed confidence in the senators’ ability to survive any recalls, noting those fights will be fought in districts far from Madison and Milwaukee.