SPOONER, WIS. — A Supreme Court race in Wisconsin has become the first referendum on the policies of Gov. Scott Walker.
The passion evident in the highly contested race could be seen here Saturday, when about 40 supporters of the incumbent stood at the intersection of Walnut Sreet, the main business street in Spooner, and Hwy. 63, waving signs.
In other times, this probably would have been a low-budget, nonpartisan race between Justice David Prosser and his challenger, Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg, but it has become so much more than that.
Huge turnout likely
A huge voter turnout is expected Tuesday when pro-Walker supporters are expected to cast their votes for Prosser and those who oppose the governor will line up behind Kloppenburg. At stake, a 10-year term on the Supreme Court — and maybe tipping the balance on the court.
Political as Wisconsin judicial races have become in recent years, there’s never been so much passion, anger and money involved in a judicial race as this one.
The signs contained a mix of anti-union (“Protect Taxpayers, not Unions!”), pro-Walker, pro-Prosser messages.
But in the blocks surrounding that rally were yard signs with anti-Walker messages (“Stop Walker, vote Kloppenburg!”)
Kloppenburg supporters point out that Saturday’s rally was small, compared with the anti-Walker rallies that had been held at the same location when Walker’s plans to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights first emerged. Over three successive weeks, those rallies attracted as many as 200 people to this Washburn County community in the northwestern corner of the state. Each anti-Walker rally included more and more pro-Kloppenburg signs.
The chair of the county’s Democratic Party, Sue Hansen, has called for one more rally this evening.
Part of the reason these rallies are so important in this portion of the state, Hansen said, is that Twin Cities media — both television and daily newspapers — dominate. That means in this part of the state, there’s a dearth of Wisconsin news in the homes of many voters. The rallies serve as a reminder that Election Day is here.
Race filled with passion and a bit of the bizarre
It’s hard to overstate the passions — and bizarre situations — surrounding this race.
Start with bizarre.
On Sunday, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel endorsed Prosser, although the editorial did suggest that Prosser probably shouldn’t have called the state’s chief justice, Shirley Abrahamson, “a bitch.” It also chastised the justice for releasing a statement saying that his decisions “complement” Walker.
The paper suggested that maybe Prosser, who was appointed to the court by former Republican Gov. Tommy Thomspon in 1998, should take some anger management courses and probably shouldn’t be so political. The paper finally concluded that Prosser, who proudly proclaims his pro-life stance on abortion, has shown an independent streak on the court.
Certainly, most Democrats don’t see Prosser as independent. Rather, they see him as a consistent member of the 4-3 conservative majority on the court.
While Prosser supporters welcome the endorsement of the state’s largest paper, Kloppenburg supporters are celebrating, too.
That’s because Sarah Palin recently endorsed Prosser.
“That’s got to help us,” said Hansen.
Even more importantly, former Wisconsin Democratic Gov. Patrick Lucey, who is in his 90s, resigned his position this week as a honorary chairman of Prosser’s campaign and threw his support to Kloppenburg.
Lucey cited Prosser’s “disturbing distemper” and lack of “civility” for making the late-campaign switch.
In fact, most political pundits believe Prosser would have breezed through in more normal times in Wisconsin.
But since Walker assumed office, nothing has been normal.
Letters to the editor of papers such as the weekly Spooner Advocate are filled with fire.
Emotions run high in Spooner
In last week’s Advocate, for example, there was a letter from a pastor from Trego calling for Christians to support Kloppenburg.
“If you believe the words of Jesus, I call on you to vote for JoAnne Kloppenburg,” wrote the Rev. Terrance Stratton. “Kloppenburg has a reputation for fairness and common sense, while her opponent has already voiced his support for the governor’s plans.”
On the other side of the race, there was a letter from James Coil of Cumberland.
“Your vote for Justice Prosser will keep an experienced justice in a position to preserve and protect family values, life, our constitution and rule of law,” Coil wrote.
Money, of course, has been used to stoke passions. Supreme Court races in Wisconsin are supposed to be capped at about $300,000 per candidate.
But outside organizations have stepped into the contest, spending more than $2 million on standard, hyperbolic ads.
In those ads, Kloppenburg has been described as an environmental extremist who once jailed an 80-year-old farmer who refused to plant state-mandated grasses. (That ad was labeled a “Pants on Fire” lie by Wisconsin PolitiFact.) Pro-Kloppenburg ads run by outside organizations have been slightly less misleading.
All of this heat because of Walker. And it’s not going away after Tuesday’s election.
Up next are efforts at recall elections, first in the state Senate, not to mention preparations for the 2012 races.
Politics has never been so blazing hot in Wisconsin. In small towns in places like Washburn County here, where everyone knows everyone else, it can get personal.
“You have to try to learn to get along,” said Hansen, the Democrat. “I’m on the library board and in a book club with the chairwoman of the Republican Party [in Washburn County]. We respect our friendship and we want to preserve it.”
How do you do that?
“We never talk politics,” said Hansen.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.