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Gov. Scott Walker scored the biggest victory of his political career last week when he signed his contentious collective bargaining bill into law. Now his opponents are itching for payback, and it appears they're going to start taking out their frustrations on conservative state Supreme Court Justice David Prosser.
Prosser's re-election bid against challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg had been chugging along in the background for nearly a month as massive protests at the state Capitol consumed the media. The protests, in fact, began in earnest the night Prosser and Kloppenburg emerged from a four-way court primary.
Walker, a Republican, signed the bill into law on Friday, but it was unclear whether that will spell the end of the demonstrations. One thing is certain -- the long-range political fallout is just beginning. Walker's opponents have vowed to recall Republican state senators who supported the bill, and his supporters are seeking to recall Democratic senators who fled the state to block a vote.
It will take thousands of signatures to trigger any recall election, but the April 5 Supreme Court election is just three weeks away, thrusting the conservative-leaning Prosser squarely into the sights of angry Democrats and union supporters.
The race is officially nonpartisan, but defeating an incumbent conservative justice would send a "shockwave" through the Republican Party, said Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association. Palmer noted in an e-mail to The Associated Press the WPPA hasn't endorsed a candidate yet, but said the labor debate will play a huge role in the election.
"Over the last month, (Kloppenburg's) campaign seems to have risen from relative obscurity and it's now really going to be a race to watch."
Christina Brey, a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state's largest teachers union, said her organization hasn't endorsed anyone yet, either. But she said "educators are going to be watching this election, just to be sure the political power-grabbing that the governor has engaged in up to this point doesn't go unchecked."
The new law limits nearly all public workers' collective bargaining rights to wages. Walker has said he had to make the move to help the state deal with its current $137 million deficit and a $3.6 billion shortfall in the state's upcoming two-year budget. The governor said doing away with most collective bargaining rights will help local governments absorb deep cuts in state aid.
Democrats see the legislation as an attempt to weaken unions, one of their firmest campaign allies, and public workers see the changes as an assault on their rights and livelihoods.
Kloppenburg's supporters were working the crowd at last Saturday's giant union rally in front of the Capitol, urging people to vote for her as "the next step" in the fight. Kloppenburg's Facebook page is alive with comments from people trying to mobilize get-out-the-vote efforts for her and criticizing Walker and the GOP.
Kloppenburg's campaign manager, Melissa Mulliken, deflected suggestions that the election has become a referendum on Walker. She said Kloppenburg wants to remain impartial, as good judges should.
"It's good for democracy -- with a little 'd' -- to have more people interested in elections and voting and participating," Mulliken said.
Prosser's campaign manager, Brian J. Nemoir, said he expects Walker's opponents will try to make the election about Walker. That's unfair to Prosser, who is nobody's puppet, Nemoir said.
"Any suggestion that he stands lock-step with ... Walker or anyone really shows a misunderstanding of who this man is," Nemoir said. "It's really a breach of his integrity. It's the easy way for them to leverage an environment right now that is super-charged."
The Prosser-Kloppenburg struggle could have huge ramifications on Wisconsin's legal world for years to come.
The race is officially nonpartisan, but Prosser is still seen as part of a four-justice conservative majority on the court. A Kloppenburg victory would tilt the court left, which would sway how the court rules on a wide range of cases -- and perhaps determine the ultimate fate of the collective bargaining legislation.
Prosser and Kloppenburg both have agreed to take public campaign dollars, limiting the amount they can spend and leveling the playing field. Prosser, though, is a formidable opponent. A former state Assembly speaker, he has spent 12 years as a justice and has name recognition. Incumbent justices rarely lose re-election -- although Michael Gableman did defeat Justice Louis Butler in a bruising campaign in 2008.
The conservative Club for Growth ran an ad for Prosser before the primary, but no groups have taken to the air waves since, according to government watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
Charles Franklin, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist, said time is running out for Walker's opponents to try to turn a nonpartisan court race into a proxy fight over the labor law.
It may be safer for labor supporters to concentrate on recall efforts, he said. Drives are under way against eight Republican senators and eight Democratic senators.
"You've got in one sense a safer set of targets that are clearly partisan and clearly a part of the events at the Capitol and the governor's agenda," Franklin said. "If you try to bring Prosser into it, you have a harder time explaining why (he) is a part of it."