A Kloppenburg win could mean a whole new ballgame

As the Brewers mark their home opener, here’s an interesting historical tidbit: the first-ever successful recall of a Wisconsin state senator and the last time a challenger took out an incumbent for the Wisconsin Supreme Court prior to Mike Gableman have something in common.  It’s baseball.

Ready?  Let’s play Oddball!

Tuesday’s vote for the Wisconsin Supreme Court between challenger Joanne Kloppenburg and incumbent David Prosser is being billed by some as a proxy referendum on Governor Scott Walker’s first three months in office. It will be interesting to see if that’s true, but the past history of Wisconsin spring elections shows that these non-partisan affairs can produce results that run counter to the prevailing partisan political winds. This one would be a game-changer, however.

The Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce Association began a brazen effort to buy a “business-friendly” Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2007. They poured millions into seating Annette Ziegler and she showed up the morning after winning the election to thank them in person. The race was for an open seat and neither candidate for the high court was a household name. Interestingly, the right wing had spent boxcars full of money alienating the Democrats in the 2006 November elections and failed miserably, losing ground in Fall 2006, including their majority in the state senate. Clearly, there is a night and day difference between the fall partisan races and the spring elections in Wisconsin.

In April 2008, WMC was again able to bring in their candidate for the Wisconsin Supreme Court, spending millions of dollars in an incredibly negative race that saw Mike Gableman knock off sitting justice Louis Bulter 51-49. Butler had been appointed to the court in 2004, so he had never won the seat in a statewide election. Voters had turned out in droves for the Presidential primary in February and less came out for the general in April, a reverse to this year’s crescendo. Still, it was the first time an incumbent Wisconsin Supreme Court justice had been defeated for re-election since 1967. The ensuing November 2008 elections didn’t confirm a move to the right on the part of the electorate, since Democrats were swept into office nationwide and in Wisconsin, too. Barack Obama took more than 56 percent of the Presidential vote in Wisconsin, compared to a little better than 42 percent for GOP nominee John McCain.

April 2009 saw the relatively easy re-election of Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, a fixture on the high court since her appointment in 1976 by Democratic Governor Pat Lucey. It was her fourth statewide re-election to a 10-year term. Conservative challenger Randy Koschnick was essentially abandoned by the usual right-wing support structure, which likely saw the race as too long of a shot and thought better of taking it on.

Where all of that leaves us for April 2011 is difficult to say. In the February 15 primary, Prosser looked all but assured of re-election, taking 55 percent of the vote statewide. But Joanne Kloppenburg had a plurality in dark blue Dane County, polling 40 percent to Prosser’s 31 percent. Prosser’s 44 percent beat Kloppenburg’s 26 percent in the City of Milwaukee, but what may be more significant for April 5 is that most people voting in Milwaukee didn’t vote for Prosser in February, either.

A lot has happened since then.

In the run-up to this week’s general election, Prosser has been successfully harnessed to Scott Walker – a positioning that looked good just a few short months ago. Kloppenburg is running as the alternative and that appears to be a better strategic platform right now, based on the few polls that have come out since Walker and the GOP took on Wisconsin’s unions.

Turnout is expected to be about 20 percent, which is higher than the February primary and a different dynamic than the Gableman-Butler election. A hotly contested mayor’s race in Madison between two liberal candidates has early voting reportedly running ahead of the 2008 presidential primary there and the election for Walker’s replacement as Milwaukee County executive should drive turnout in Milwaukee, too. Dane County and Milwaukee are traditionally places where Democrats need to run up their vote totals to carry the state. And while the Supreme Court race is ostensibly non-partisan, it is pretty clear where the support bases for the respective candidates come from when there are players like the Tea Party Express running ads for Prosser and the Greater Wisconsin Committee weighing in for Kloppenburg.

While the stars appear to be lined up fairly well for Kloppenburg, the extreme difficulty of unseating an incumbent Wisconsin Supreme Court justice just can’t be dismissed. In the 1967 case prior to Gableman, incumbent George R. Currie lost to challenger Robert W. Hansen in no small part due to a single decision in which the court ruled 4-3 that the Milwaukee Braves hadn’t violated Wisconsin statutes by moving to Atlanta. Right or wrong as a legal matter, the Braves outraged Milwaukee and the people of Wisconsin with their move and they remembered when the opportunity for retribution came. (One can only imagine what would happen if someone took on the state’s football fans, but it might look something like an election between Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre.)

Interestingly, baseball also figured prominently in the successful 1996 recall of Republican State Senator George Petak of Racine, who was credited with casting the deciding vote in the stadium district sales tax to build Miller Park in Milwaukee. (He got to throw a ceremonial first pitch at the new ballpark to a standing ovation, but not as a senator.)

With little more than three months into the term of Walker as governor and the Fitzgerald brothers’ GOP majority leadership roles in the Senate and the Assembly, we may have the most contentious political environment in Wisconsin since the Vietnam War. La Crosse area voters have already turned in more than enough petition signatures to force a recall election for GOP Senator Dan Kapanke and other recall campaigns are actively underway. As energized as the Republicans were last fall, the Democrats seem to have the motivational edge to show up Tuesday.

I wouldn’t bet much on any possible outcome because any outcome seems possible, but the left seems to have more to win than the right. A Prosser re-election would simply be the very same outcome that was all but certain six weeks back – a successful defense, but no points to score and significant resources spent to make it happen. It would be a “dog bites man” story and in the parlance of baseball, a timely sacrifice fly. A Kloppenburg win, on the other hand, would be a solo home run. It would send a truly powerful message and create a new backdrop for the current recall efforts, the state budget debate, the “budget repair bill” drama and redistricting later this year. In short, it could mean a whole new ballgame.



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