Elections have consequences. So too does legislation. No more so than in Wisconsin where Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s effort to roll back collective bargaining rights for state public employees is beginning to roil the electoral process.
Democrats are mounting campaigns to recall GOP state legislators; Republicans are eyeing similar offensives against Democratic state legislators. And across the Great Lakes in Ohio, there is a chance this fall there will be a statewide ballot measure attempting to unravel an even broader attack by the GOP-controlled state government on collective bargaining.
But that is all to come. Round one took place April 5 in Wisconsin, where a quiet, supposedly non-partisan state Supreme Court race was turned into a high stakes proxy battle between Walker and his opponents. As of April 8, the contest appeared headed for a recount, with incumbent David Prosser sporting a lead of less than 8,000 votes out of nearly 1.5 million cast.
If his lead holds up, it would be good news for Walker and his Republican allies. Prosser, a former GOP legislator, gives conservatives a 4-to-3 edge on the Wisconsin high court, a significant advantage should the legality of Walker’s controversial measure ultimately come before the state justices.
Yet the close vote April 5 was also a moral victory for Democrats and their union allies. In the February primary before the state was galvanized by Walker’s legislative offensive, Prosser was an easy 2-to-1 winner over the runner-up, Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg. It was widely assumed that he would register an easy runoff victory over Kloppenburg in April.
But after weeks of protests in Madison, the exodus from the state of 14 Democratic state senators, and the ultimate passage of collective bargaining restrictions through a legislative end run, the tone of the Supreme Court race changed dramatically. It became, in essence, a political version of the pre-World War II Spanish civil war, with national conservative and liberal organizations getting a chance to test their “weaponry” for the slew of elections to come in the months ahead.
In the end, each side was rewarded with an extremely high turnout for a spring election in Wisconsin. The roughly 1.5 million who cast ballots April 5 was more than half the number who participated in the 2008 presidential election in the Badger state, was more than two-thirds the total who voted in last November’s gubernatorial election, and was nearly identical to the number who voted in the combined Democratic and Republican presidential primaries in Wisconsin in February 2008.
The widespread voter interest in the normally easy to ignore Wisconsin Supreme Court election underscored a basic fact – that voters will turn out in large numbers if they have clear options and a sense that the election matters. Given the clear-cut differences these days between Democrats and Republicans, there is little doubt that many elections in the 2011-12 cycle will meet this criteria.