MADISON, Wis. — A conservative state Supreme Court justice overcame efforts to tie him to Wisconsin's polarizing governor and survived a near-upset in a race that drew national attention after a fierce fight over union rights.
County tallies finalized Friday showed Justice David Prosser defeated little-known challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg by 7,316 votes. State election officials said they will wait to declare an official winner until the deadline for Kloppenburg to seek a recount passes. She has until Wednesday to call for one.
Although the race was officially nonpartisan, Democrats tried to link Prosser, a 12-year court veteran and former Republican Assembly speaker, to Republican Gov. Scott Walker and a divisive new law stripping public employees of most of their union rights. Anger over the law gave Kloppenburg's campaign a boost in the weeks leading up to the election, but it wasn't enough to put her over the top.
Prosser's campaign issued a statement Friday declaring victory.
"Today, the will of the electorate is clear with ... Justice David Prosser re-elected," the statement said.
Kloppenburg issued a statement that said only that her campaign would weigh a recount request and she would make an announcement no later than Wednesday. If she requests a recount, the state will pay for it because the margin between the candidates is less than a half of a percent of the total 1,497,330 votes cast.
Prosser defeated Kloppenburg in a four-way, nonpartisan primary on the same day in February that Walker put forward his union rights bill. The governor has said the law is needed to help balance the state budget and give local governments the flexibility they need to absorb deep cuts in state aid. Democrats see it as an assault on unions, which are among the party's strongest campaign allies.
Along with eliminating most public employees' collective bargaining rights, it requires them to contribute more to their health care and pensions, changes that will result in an average 8 percent pay cut.
Tens of thousands of people converged on the state Capitol for weeks to protest the bill, and minority Democrats in the Senate fled the state in a futile attempt to block a vote in that chamber.
The law is currently tied up in the courts and hasn't taken effect. Those legal challenges look destined for the state Supreme Court.
The law's opponents hoped a Kloppenburg upset would tilt the court to the left and set the stage for the justices to overturn the measure. For his part, Prosser has told The Associated Press that he doesn't necessarily support the law but cautioned his personal feelings don't influence how he rules on cases before the court.
Turnout in the April 5 election shattered expectations. Unofficial returns from election night initially showed Kloppenburg had bested Prosser by 204 votes. Kloppenburg declared victory on April 6, but the next day the Waukesha County clerk announced she had forgotten to save 14,000 votes on her computer. Those new votes tipped the election to Prosser, giving him an unofficial 7,500 vote lead.
The clerk, Kathy Nickolaus, worked for Prosser as a member of the Assembly Republican caucus in the mid-1990s. Democrats have demanded she resign and authorities launch an investigation into why she didn't immediately report the votes. State election officials are reviewing Nickolaus' operations, but she has refused to step down, saying she made an honest mistake.