04/07/2011 01:57 pm ET | Updated Jun 07, 2011

Scott Walker Struggles To Downplay Wisconsin Election That His Allies Built Up As A Referendum

WASHINGTON -- After JoAnne Kloppenburg declared victory on Wednesday over conservative incumbent Justice David Prosser in the Wisconsin Supreme Court race, Gov. Scott Walker (R) quickly tried to convince the public that the result was not a referendum on him, his legislation that stripped collective bargaining from public employees, or the state's embattled Republican Party. But before the election, back when Prosser's victory looked more likely, Walker's allies were branding it as exactly that.

Just a couple of weeks ago, few people thought Kloppenburg could beat Prosser, a close ally of Walker's. She lost by 30 points to Prosser in the February primary (the election is nonpartisan), and incumbents for the state's high court have rarely been unseated.

Even the labor community, which desperately wanted Kloppenburg to win, had doubts. Labor groups had been trying to avoid framing the race as a referendum on Walker, one labor official said, because they were not confident that Kloppenburg could upset Prosser -- and it was clear Walker and his allies were anticipating a much-needed symbolic win. "Let's put it this way," said the official, "I had Prosser winning in the office pool, and I wasn't alone."

While the outcome of Tuesday's election is undoubtedly headed for a recount, results show that Kloppenburg beat Prosser by 204 votes. As The Huffington Post reported, 19 counties that Walker won in the 2010 gubernatorial race flipped this time and went for Kloppenburg. The Wisconsin Democratic Party called the result Walker's "Waterloo."

Walker rejected that characterization in a press conference on Wednesday.

"You have two very different worlds in the state," said Walker. "You’ve got a world driven by Madison, and a world driven by everybody else, the majority out across the state of Wisconsin. What that tells me is...Wisconsin is not a red state, it's not a blue state. In many ways, it's a purple state. And it's divided on these issues. What we're charged with having to do, I believe, is finding ways to bring this state together."

But some of Walker's allies have spent the past few weeks playing up the race's importance, with the expectation that Prosser would be the victor.

On the eve of the election, Walker's chief counsel sent an email detailing what would happen if Prosser was ousted from the court. The consequences included, "Governor Walker's agenda could be stopped in its tracks by this new activist majority," and "Union bosses and their allies will be emboldened and further push to recall the brave Senators who voted for Governor Walker's budget repair bill."

Prosser's campaign had tied itself to Walker as well. In late 2010, it issued a release saying the justice would be "a common sense complement to both the new administration and Legislature."

GOP state Sen. Dan Kapanke, who is one of the top targets of a recall effort by Democrats, said just before votes were tallied that the election would serve as an important bellwether for his chances of surviving a recall.

“I think the turnout will be higher, especially in my part of the state, because we have an assembly district that’s going to be a key battleground, one of the first elections following the new administration here,” Kapanke told Newsmax, referring to his western region of Wisconsin. "So it’s going to be sort of a mini-referendum on Governor Walker and what we’ve done here in the legislature. I think that’s going to raise the numbers."

The Wisconsin Republican Party did not immediately return a request for comment.

Turnout statewide hit nearly 1.5 million for Tuesday's election, representing 33.5 percent of voting-age adults -- 68 percent higher than the 20 percent turnout officials had expected. The western part of Wisconsin flipped especially heavily for Kloppenburg, after electing Walker in 2010. La Crosse, Vernon and Crawford counties, which fall within Kapanke's district, all went for Kloppenburg.

So while Walker tried to portray Kloppenburg's win as a result of voters in Madison, a more liberal part of the state, it was actually other parts of the state that helped boost her.

Charles H. Franklin, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told The Huffington Post that the return of the western part of the state to the Democratic side was one of the most notable parts of Tuesday's election.

"Along the Mississippi River has usually been a Democratic-leaning region," he said. "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."

Prosser did, however, do well in the east along Lake Michigan and Milwaukee County.

"His strong performance here in the east turned that into the tie we see," added Franklin. "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."

Outside interest groups spent more than $3.5 million on the Supreme Court race on TV time, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Pro-Kloppenburg forces spent $1.3 million, while pro-Prosser groups spent nearly $2.2 million.

[UPDATE: 8:20 p.m. -- A stunning announcement in Waukesha County on Thursday evening revealed that the initial vote count provided to the media on Tuesday night was inaccurate. The new results give Prosser a 7,500-vote edge over Kloppenburg.]