Will the Supreme Court race track Walker’s poll numbers?
Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser is a bit of an art aficionado and I talked with him a couple of times when he stopped by Lt. Governor Lawton’s office for “Art in the Office” receptions, which she regularly held during her tenure. Those events are a thing of the past, the Wisconsin Arts Board that Lawton still chairs may be essentially disbanded by Governor Walker’s budget and Prosser probably has other things on his mind now, too.
A little over a month ago, Prosser looked like he was in great shape for re-election. He comfortably took more than half the votes in the February 15 primary and his closest competitor, Joanne Kloppenburg, polled less than half as many votes. The conservative Club for Growth accounted for 70 percent of the ad spending for all candidates in the primary, spending $321,000 to back Prosser in the lightly-attended February primary.
A former GOP Assembly speaker, David Prosser was originally appointed to the court by Governor Tommy Thompson in 1998 and subsequently elected to a 10-year term on the high court in 2001. When he started his campaign for re-election last year and kicked it into high gear after the fall midterms, there seemed little downside in visibly linking to the conservative wave and Scott Walker. Wisconsin Republicans had picked up seats in the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House that had long been held by Democrats, along with a sweep turnover of the state senate, assembly and governor’s offices. Who wouldn’t want to ride that kind of Tsunami?
But that was then and this is now. Governor Walker rolled out his assault on collective bargaining just prior to the Supreme Court primary and since then, hundreds of thousands of protesters have visited the capitol. While they’re busily gathering signatures for recall elections around the state that could take place as early as June, Joanne Kloppenburg has emerged as a symbol in a Supreme Court race that might have otherwise slid quietly by with Prosser easily winning another decade on the bench. It might not work out that way.
Conservative interests like Club for Growth and the Wisconsin Association of Manufacturers & Commerce all but sponsored two of the last three winners in Wisconsin’s Supreme Court races. While WMC-backed justices Annette Ziegler and Mike Gableman both had issues raised relating to their ethics, they remain on a court that tilts a bit to the right. Prosser made no bones about his right-wing credentials early on.
Now, his remarks about acting as a ‘complement’ to Walker and saying his views ‘closely mirror’ Walker’s are coming back to haunt him – along with hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising from the progressive Greater Wisconsin Committee reminding everyone what he said. What’s coming out as the bumper sticker message is that “Prosser Equals Walker” – something that might have been okay early last November, but could well be a losing strategy for April 2011, if his detractors can keep that message front and center. (See www.prosserequalswalker.com .) Looming recalls, an expensive fall election season last year and a post-budget repair bill ad blitz in February may also be factors in how much support Prosser can expect.
An experienced assistant attorney general, Kloppenburg actually raised more money than Prosser leading up to the primary by a few thousand dollars. But with the well-worn playbook for the conservatives relying on third-party groups to buy up millions in media advertising for their picks and Kloppenburg not being theirs, it didn’t seem like it would matter. While Prosser may still get some help from the usual quarters, it may not be as helpful as it might have been in the past with a tuned-in and enthusiastic opposition group just waiting for evidence that the usual suspects are involved.
To make things even more interesting, here’s the lead from a story in the March 19 edition of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:
Madison– As the deeply divided state Supreme Court wrestled over whether to force one member off criminal cases last year, Justice David Prosser exploded at Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson behind closed doors, calling her a “bitch” and threatening to “destroy” her.
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That’s quite a story to have emerging with such impeccable timing:
I must admit that one of the more entertaining tirades I ever watched on the Assembly floor was courtesy of Prosser when he was minority leader, so I didn’t find the account of a colorful explosion to be all that surprising.
With the vote a little more than two weeks away, Kloppenburg is crossing the state and finding herself very welcome. Her name is regularly showing up on the signs of supporters demonstrating in Madison and elsewhere – something that is not lost on her. Kloppenburg’s stump speech is upbeat and she stresses her independence, unlike Prosser’s early stance that relied on his association with the Republicans. The April vote could be substantially heavier than the February primary, with the office of Milwaukee County Executive and Madison mayor on the ballot.
Opponents of Walker and the Republican majority in the legislature know that an early and powerful message they could send would be to dump Supreme Court Justice David Prosser and Joanne Kloppenburg is looking very good to them. The controversial budget repair bill is already stalled in one court and legislative redistricting might also end up in the high court. A “complement” to the guv and the GOP legislature is the last thing that people opposed to the current agenda want to see.
Judicial races are a little strange. Since they’re ostensibly non-partisan and the candidates can’t talk about issues likely to come before the court, they rely mostly on the occasional dog whistles to partisans and whatever image of judicial experience and temperament the candidates can cultivate about themselves and each other. That can leave little in the way of issues beyond the candidates themselves. In this race, David Prosser – whose early dog whistles were accomplished with a vuvuzela — is becoming a bigger issue every day.
This is a race that Prosser could have easily have won two months ago and the primary showed it. With Walker and the legislature sticking its thumb in the eye of a good share of the Badger State’s electorate since then, it’s far less of a sure bet now.
Greater Wisconsin “rubber stamp” ad:
UPDATE: Internal polls indicate that unlike the February primary, it’s now a very close race: