Unknown sixth months ago, unviable six weeks ago, first-time candidate JoAnne Kloppenburg declared victory Wednesday in her challenge to a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice closely aligned with Governor Scott Walker.
It was a narrow but stunning upset win for Kloppenburg—204 votes out of almost1.5 million cast—that is all but certain to lead to a recount fight.
But the final unofficial count in a race watched closely not just in Wisconsin but nationally has already opened a remarkable new chapter in the story of the political uprising that began when Republican Governor Scott Walker launched his assault on public employee unions, public schools and local democracy in Wisconsin.
Kloppenburg began her campaign for the state Supreme Court as an all-but-certain loser, a political neophyte challenging entrenched Justice David Prosser.
As a member of the 4-3 conservative majority on the high court, Prosser was positioned to secure the major endorsements, enjoy the support of free-spending special interest groups and dominate the race. In the mid-February primary, which came just days after Walker announced his anti-union project, Prosser defeated Kloppenburg by thirty points.
But on the same night that Prosser was coasting to that primary victory, one of the first major demonstrations against Walker’s bill drew 8,000 people to the state Capitol in Madison. Those numbers grew to 20,000, to 50,000, to 80,000, to 100,000 and ultimately to 125,000 at a mass rally several weeks ago. The Wisconsin movement became a national and, ultimately, an international phenomenon.
Slowly, it began to dawn on the protesters that the April 5 Supreme Court election was an opportunity to mount not only protests in the street but protests at the polls.
Handmade “Kloppenburg” signs began to appear at the rally. The candidate, an assistant attorney general, was running a campaign with such a low budget that it could not afford printed signs, so her supporters made their own.
They also started to expose Prosser as a rigid partisan who had brought his Republican politics to what is supposed to be a nonpartisan bench. A former leader of legislative Republicans who served as Assembly speaker and mentored a young legislator named Scott Walker, Prosser’s re-election campaign had begun with an announcement that he planned to make the court a “complement” to the Walker administration and Republican majorities in the state Assembly and Senate.
Kloppenburg promised to serve as an independent jurist who would uphold the rule of law, rather than promote the governor’s agenda. That was more than enough for the unions and their allies, which embraced the Kloppenburg campaign—along with the hope of grabbing majority control of the court away from Walker-allied conservatives…
Her candidacy became a focus of the movement that had developed to oppose Walker’s agenda and, as Election Day approached, the impossible run began to look like the real thing. Prosser still had all his advantages, but Kloppenburg had the masses. Outside groups poured money into the contest, with the majority of it going to Prosser, a Tea Party favorite endorsed by Sarah Palin. But Kloppenburg had plenty of support, especially at the grassroots, where the handmade signs went up all over the state.