This story has been updated and corrected.
WASHINGTON -- A divisive budget battle between labor unions and Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) turned a state Supreme Court race into a nationally watched bellwether on the electorate's mood heading into a recall campaign and the 2012 elections.
Nearly 1.5 million people turned out to vote, representing 33.5 percent of voting-age adults -- 68 percent higher than the 20 percent turnout officials had expected. JoAnne Kloppenburg has already declared victory, with the vote tallies showing her beating incumbent David Prosser by just a couple hundred votes. The race is expected to head to a recount.
Significantly, 19 counties that went for Walker in the 2010 elections this time flipped and went for Kloppenburg, including LaCrosse (59 percent), Sauk (56 percent) and Dunn (56 percent).
There were no party affiliations on the ballot, but Kloppenburg was heavily backed by Democrats and Prosser by Republicans, making it a fierce proxy battle for the two parties.
On a conference call with reporters Wednesday afternoon, Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate was jubilant over the results, saying they represent a "watershed moment for Wisconsin and a Waterloo for Scott Walker."
"It should give Republicans, who are -- for the moment -- in the majority, pause about how they proceed in enacting Walker's terrible budget," he added.
Tate pointed to the pick-ups in the western part of the state, which went heavily for Kloppenburg. Even in counties that Democrats won in 2010, Tate was happy that the margins were wider than they were in November. For example, Tom Barrett, who lost the race for governor to Walker in November, won Eau Claire County with 51 percent of the vote. This time, Kloppenburg captured Eau Claire with 58 percent.
"In Wisconsin, we have a ... very high number of independent voters, who are not wedded to one party or another," said Tate, explaining the swing.
The Wisconsin Republican Party did not return a request for comment. But Prosser's team has already said that it is working on the possibility of a recount.
"We are assembling our legal team and continuing to watch our vote totals," Prosser Campaign Director Brian Nemoir said. "We are encouraged by the turnout and believe in a record-setting Supreme Court election there's plenty of reason to believe there's unrecognized opportunity to deliver a victory."
Prosser was a strong ally of the governor, and both conservatives and progressives invested a significant amount of resources into the race. Nemoir previously admitted that Prosser's campaign was about "protecting the conservative judicial majority and acting as a common sense complement to both the new administration and Legislature."
A new justice won't be sworn in until Aug. 1, and according to Lester Pines, a senior partner at the firm Cullen Weston Pines & Bach LLP in Madison, Wis., it's unlikely that the high court would consider a challenge to the governor's anti-union bill before then.
"I think it's very unlikely, given where things are in court right now," he said.
Wisconsin State Circuit Court Judge Maryann Sumi issued an order saying that the state cannot enforce a bill stripping away collective bargaining rights for public employees. She is considering a lawsuit brought by the Dane County District Attorney, who sued four GOP lawmakers alleging that the bill violates the state's open-meetings law.
Justices on the Wisconsin Supreme Court serve 10-year terms, and unseating a member is extremely rare. It was done in 2008, but before that, it had been 41 years since an incumbent lost an election.
Pines argued that if Kloppenburg wins, it would provide a huge boost to Democrats' efforts to recall GOP senators.
"If we win this, then what happens is the momentum toward the recalls becomes overwhelming, and people will really be fired up because they have a victory," said Pines. "There's nothing like a victory to keep people's motivation high, and there's nothing like a loss to demoralize your opponents."
Democrats have launched recall efforts against all eight eligible Republicans, although a Democratic state senator told The Huffington Post that he believes they have a solid chance at only six of them. Republicans are also targeting six Democrats in recall efforts.
The flipped counties: Adams, Chippewa, Columbia, Dunn, Grant, Iron, Jackson, Juneau, Kenosha, La Crosse, Lafayette, Monroe, Pepin, Pierce, Richland, Sauk, Vernon, Washburn and Wood.
Correction: This story initially incorrectly identified Kloppenburg as a Democrat. It has been amended to reflect that while there were no party affiliations on the ballot, Kloppenburg was heavily backed by Democrats and Prosser by Republicans, making it a fierce proxy battle for the two parties.
UPDATE: 9:39 p.m. -- The Huffington Post created a map showing the change in the votes from the 2010 gubernatorial election to Tuesday's Supreme Court election. Click on each county to find specific data.
Charles H. Franklin, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, commented to the Huffington Post about the data:
There are two notable elements of the map. The return of the west to a Democratic balance. Along the Mississippi River has usually been a Democratic-leaning region. Walker took that away significantly in 2010. The uniform red shading of the west in this map shows the region has some second thoughts. It is also the region most likely to recall a GOP senator, and this shifting vote map shows that.
The second striking thing is the east along Lake Michigan, and Milwaukee County most important of all. Prosser did quite well though out this region. Had he merely held Walker's level of support there, he would have lost by a significant margin. His strong performance here in the east turned that into the tie we see. Most interesting is his success in normally Dem Milwaukee city and county. While he lost the majority there, he did better than Walker, and that relative gain helped mitigate what are normally more damaging vote losses.
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