Wisconsin’s Battle Supreme

Gov. Scott Walker
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Gov. Scott Walker

BY STEPHEN MOORE – The rancorous political battles in Wisconsin haven’t died down even weeks after Republican Governor Scott Walker’s budget victories seemed to have settled the matter. Liberals in the state are trying to make the April election for a state supreme court justice a referendum on Governor Walker and his policies to reform public union pensions. A liberal front group called Greater Wisconsin Committee has announced it will spend as much as $3 million on the race.


State supreme court justice elections are typically slam dunks for the incumbent unless there is a scandal or a high-profile court decision that galvanizes opposition. In this case, incumbent David Prosser is caught in the crossfire over collective bargaining issues. Conservatives currently hold a 4-3 majority on the Wisconsin court, but an upset would give liberals the balance of power. Mr. Prosser’s opponent, JoAnne Kloppenburg, was a relative unknown and a decided underdog until the protests ignited in Madison. She is now running around that state arguing that Mr. Prosser is a rubber stamp for Governor Walker and his agenda. The liberal groups are up with ads called “Prosser Is Walker.”

Both candidates took $300,000 in public financing, and are legally prohibited from collecting private donations. So the air wars are being fought by independent outside groups. Conservative leaders in Wisconsin and around the country are getting ready to invest more than seven figures to defend Mr. Prosser. The Club for Growth is expected to spend another $300,000 on ads supporting the embattled justice. The police, fire fighter, and teachers unions have all weighed in behind Ms. Kloppenburg.

A memo written by liberal groups explains that the left’s strategy is to win this race and then “challenge in the courts,” nearly every budget reform that Mr. Walker and the Republican majority in the legislature tries to enact. It also appears that if the court challenge to the collective bargaining bill goes all the way to the Supreme Court, this would happen after the April 5th election. That would mean that if Mr. Prosser loses, the votes might no longer be there to uphold the new law.

Political experts I talk to in the state almost unanimously say Mr. Prosser should be worried. “Prosser is in trouble,” says Brett Healy, president of the conservative MacIver Institute. He adds, “Prosser has to do a better job reminding people that she [Ms. Kloppenburg] is a liberal.” “We think this race has got to be won, if we are going to keep the momentum going in these budget battles around the country,” the leader of one major conservative political group tells me. That group says it is considering putting $1 million or more into the race in the final days.

The supreme court election figures to be the first test case gauging how voters feel about the budget cutbacks made by Mr. Walker last month. Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, told the A.P. that a win for Ms. Kloppenburg would send a “shock wave” throughout the state. Conservatives are all on hands on deck to prevent that from happening.

Stephen Moore is a columnist for the Wall Street Journal