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Wisconsin’s Budget Battle Lands on the Ballot

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Protesters rally against Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s budget proposal outside the state capitol in Madison, Wis. Both parties have made the fight a national referendum.

There won’t be a single Congressman, Senator or governor on Tuesday’s ballot, but Wisconsin’s spring elections have attracted some of the nation’s most powerful political forces.

It is simply a race for a state Supreme Court judge — one of seven seats on the state’s high court — heading a ticket that will also decide a host of judgeships in counties such as Winnebago, Outagamie and Waupaca. But outside groups have poured millions into the top contest, the tea party movement has issued a call to arms, national labor unions have mobilized, and even Sarah Palin has weighed in.

“These spring elections in Wisconsin are usually sleepy affairs,” said Graeme Zielinski, state Democratic Party spokesman. “People are waking up.”

The awakening comes largely because of newly elected Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican who ignited what may be the most passionate union battle in a generation by pushing through a budget-balancing plan to end some collective bargaining rights for state workers. The battle has challenged organized labor’s might in state capitals across the country. And it has defined what will likely be a running national debate in the runup to the 2012 presidential contest.

“It’s because Scott Walker has stood with people like the Koch brothers in making Wisconsin a petri dish for these really extreme measures that don’t have any place here,” Zielinski said. “The fear is that if they can bust unions in Wisconsin, they can do it anywhere.”

Many believe that a win by the left-leaning challenger, state Department of Justice prosecutor Joanne Kloppenburg, over longtime Justice David Prosser would shift the balance of power in the state’s judicial branch, giving the left a 4-to-3 majority on the Supreme Court. That could play a prominent role in any effort to overturn Walker’s restrictions on collective bargaining. The winner will serve a 10-year term.

Indeed, the Tea Party Express, the conservative machine behind unlikely grass-roots Republican primary victories in Delaware and Alaska last fall, dubbed Tuesday’s Supreme Court contest “the most important election of the year.”

Although Walker is not on Tuesday’s ballot, the elections may be more about him than any of the 66 registered candidates.

“The battle in Wisconsin is far from over!” Tea Party Express leader Amy Kremer wrote to supporters Friday in a note supporting Prosser. “After the great work that Governor Walker did to help balance the budget, the liberal left is at it again! Big Labor is spending millions to help elect a liberal activist to the Wisconsin Supreme Court in their effort to overturn the fiscally responsible legislation that recently passed.”

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