April 4 (Bloomberg) -- A nonpartisan election for Wisconsin Supreme Court justice has been transformed into a proxy for the battle over Republican Governor Scott Walker’s law curbing collective bargaining for public employees.
Groups inside and outside the state are pouring money into the contest tomorrow between Justice David T. Prosser Jr. and challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg. The outcome may shift the court’s ideological balance and determine how a legal challenge to the Wisconsin law is decided, said Mordecai Lee, an assistant professor of government affairs at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee.
“This is not merely a symbolic referendum on public opinion about the collective-bargaining bill; it is substantively about the collective-bargaining bill,” Mordecai, a state lawmaker from 1976 to 1990, said in a telephone interview. “This is the swing seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court that will probably eventually decide the issue.”
The election will send a strong message, said Charles Franklin, a political-science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
If Kloppenburg wins, it will tell Republicans they may pay a price for the governor’s initiatives, Franklin said. A Prosser victory will show that Republicans can weather the storm of opposition by Democrats and unions to a law Walker championed that limits bargaining for public workers, he said.
“The stakes are high,” Franklin said in a telephone interview from Madison. “The potential political blowback from this is strong.”
The Wisconsin law limits most public workers to bargaining for wages alone; raises can’t exceed inflation unless voters agree. The measure requires increased contributions for health- care coverage and pensions. Debates about government workers’ bargaining and benefits also are unfolding in states including Ohio, New Jersey and Indiana.
The district attorney of Dane County, which encompasses the capital of Madison, sued to block the Wisconsin law, arguing its passage violated open-meetings law.
Kloppenburg, 57, has been a litigator and prosecutor at the Wisconsin Department of Justice since 1989, serving under attorneys general from both parties, according to her campaign website. She gave a total of $1,025 to seven candidates and the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee between 2002 and 2010, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan watchdog group. Six candidates were Democrats and the seventh race was nonpartisan.
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Prosser, 68, served as a Republican for 18 years in the state Legislature and on his campaign website says, “I present myself as a judicial conservative, devoted to the constitution and the rule of law.”
Melissa Mulliken, Kloppenburg’s campaign manager, pointed to a Dec. 8 statement from Prosser’s campaign that said his election would be “a common-sense complement to the new administration and Legislature.”
Prosser won 55 percent of the vote in the nonpartisan primary Feb. 15, while Kloppenburg, who received the second-most votes, garnered 25 percent, according to the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board.
Since Walker introduced his “budget-repair” bill on Feb. 11 and the Legislature approved it March 11, more than a dozen groups have been spending money for television and radio ads and other campaigning and have made the race a “dogfight,” said Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
Both Prosser and Kloppenburg accepted public financing from the state of $100,000 each for the primary and $300,000 each for the general election, meaning they can no longer take private donations, McCabe said.
Independent groups have spent a combined $2.4 million on television ads through April 1, including $2 million for the general election according to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. That includes $1 million from the Greater Wisconsin Committee supporting Kloppenburg, plus almost $416,000 from the Wisconsin Club for Growth and almost $387,000 from Citizens for A Strong America in support of Prosser, said Maria DaSilva, a research associate at the Brennan Center. Independent expenditures for the 2009 Wisconsin Supreme Court race were $305,708, DaSilva said.
“Interest in the race has soared as liberal-leaning organizations have attacked Prosser as a ‘rubber stamp’ for Walker, and business groups have warned that a Kloppenburg victory could endanger Walker’s legislative accomplishments if and when the Supreme Court rules on challenges to the legislation,” according to the report.
“I don’t think we would have seen this kind of interest- group activity if the collective-bargaining issue hadn’t exploded the way it did,” McCabe said in a telephone interview.
The race between Prosser and Kloppenburg is “a proxy against their will,” Lee said. “The campaigns have been kidnapped by these larger issues and larger forces. Whether they like it or not, the two candidates are left in the passive role of watching the campaign that they are barely participants in.”
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