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Paul M. Walsh  /  AP
Wisconsin Supreme Court Judge David Prosser is interviewed by Katey Rusch of WDIO TV at the Richard I Bong Airport in Superior, Wis., on March 31. The race for supreme court judge in Wisconsin has become a heated issue after Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill limiting unions in Wisconsin. The slogan used by Prosser's opponents is "A vote for Prosser is a vote for Walker."
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updated 4/7/2011 9:42:47 AM ET 2011-04-07T13:42:47

Wisconsin voters sent Republican Gov. Scott Walker a clear message about their unhappiness with his muscling an anti-union rights bill through the state Legislature by sending a once runaway state Supreme Court race toward a near-certain recount and filling the governor's former post with a Democrat.

While Walker downplayed the significance of Tuesday's elections on Wednesday, saying they were skewed by exceptional turnout in the liberal cities of Madison and Milwaukee, Democrats warned they were only a sign of what's to come.

Badger State showdown: Headed for a recount

Recall efforts have been launched against 16 state senators from both parties for their support or opposition to the bill eliminating most public employees' collective bargaining rights.

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"This continues to add fuel to the tremendous fire of enthusiasm and passion to recall the Republican senators that support Scott Walker's backwards priorities for the state," Wisconsin Democratic Party chairman Mike Tate said of the election results.

First Thoughts: GOP risks overreaching in budget fight

In the most closely watched race, a little-known assistant state attorney harnessed union supporters' anger to come from behind and possibly unseat a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice often associated with Walker.

Justice David Prosser won a nonpartisan, four-way primary with 55 percent of the vote. The general election was expected to be a runaway after second-place finisher JoAnne Kloppenburg got half as many votes.

But Wednesday, unofficial returns showed Kloppenburg with a slim 204-vote lead over Prosser. His campaign has said it will likely ask for a re-count.

In another significant race, Democrat Chris Abele bested Republican state Rep. Jeff Stone to become the next Milwaukee County executive. Walker held that post until he was elected governor in November, and Stone twice voted for his anti-union bill.

Story: Judge temporarily blocks Wisconsin anti-union law

'Two very different worlds'
Walker discounted Abele's win, saying Milwaukee County is historically Democratic. He also chalked up the close Supreme Court race to heavy voting in Milwaukee and Madison. Turnout in the state capital, which was rocked by three weeks of protests that drew as many as 85,000 people to one rally, was 54 percent — twice the level usually seen in an April election.

"You have two very different worlds in this state," the governor said. "You have a world driven by Madison and a world driven by everybody else out across the state of Wisconsin."

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee political scientist Mordecai Lee, a former Democratic legislator, more or less agreed with that sentiment. Tuesday's elections showed that the state is divided, and Walker doesn't have the overwhelming support from a silent majority as he has claimed for the past two months, Lee said.

"There's exactly 50 percent of the voters who like what the Republicans are doing, and 50 percent don't like it," he said.

Given that, Republicans worried about re-election could ask their leaders to drop the union rights provisions, he said.

"The rank-and-file is going to turn to the leadership and say, 'We don't want to hang on this thing anymore. We want to pass the collective bargaining bill with the financial concessions and we'll leave them the collective bargaining and we won't have this millstone around our necks,'" he predicted.

Along with eliminating most of public workers bargaining rights, the law requires them to contribute more to their health care and pensions, changes that amount to an average 8 percent pay cut.

Union leaders had agreed to the health and pension provisions if members could keep their bargaining rights, but Walker rejected that compromise. He said the changes were needed to free local governments of collective bargaining restraints as they grapple with deep cuts in state aid.

The law is on hold while a number of lawsuits work their way through the court system. One has already been appealed to the state Supreme Court, where either Prosser or Kloppenburg could influence its outcome.

Kloppenburg declared victory Wednesday, although the state's election chief Kevin Kennedy said he fully expects the unofficial vote totals to change as local election officials verify the counts.

"There will be changes because this is a very human-driven process," Kennedy said. "We expect mistakes."

'Right now we're sitting on victory'
Kloppenburg wouldn't acknowledge that the collective bargaining law had a direct influence on her win, saying people just wanted an impartial justice.

"Right now we're sitting on a victory," she said. "My message has crossed all political lines."

Prosser, though, refused to concede.

"The victor in this election won't be decided today, or even tomorrow," he said in a statement. "We have survived an epic campaign battle, and we will continue to fight for every vote cast."

The dates for a re-count depend on several things, but the latest it could start is April 21. Kennedy said he expected it would be done before May 15 because of deadlines state officials face.

Tea Party, labor funding
It was the most expensive state Supreme Court race in Wisconsin history. As of Tuesday, outside groups had spent a record $3.58 million, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a New York University program that tracks spending on judicial races.

On Wednesday, two liberal groups, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Democracy for America, announced they planned to pour another $125,000 into ads supporting recall drives against eight Republican state senators who backed Walker's bill.

State GOP executive director Mark Jefferson expressed confidence in the senators' ability to survive any recalls, noting those fights will be fought in districts far from Madison and Milwaukee.

"This rare opportunity to bring common sense reform to state government," Jefferson said, "will not be taken from (people) without one massive fight."

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: The battle over collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin

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  1. Massive crowds gather to see the 14 democratic senators that left the state to protest the bill proposed by the Gov. Scott Walker as crowds continued to protest at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison on Saturday, March 12. (Darren Hauck / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Democratic Senator Lena Taylor, right, and civil rights leader Reverend Jesse Jackson Jr. greet the crowd as they and the other Wisconsin State democratic senators that left the state to protest the bill proposed by the Gov. Scott Walker return to massive crowds that continue to protest at the Wisconsin State Capitol on March 12. (Darren Hauck / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Republican Wisconsin State Legislatures look on as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker performs a ceremonial bill signing outside his office at the Wisconsin State Capitol on March 11. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Protesters shout outside the office of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker as he held a ceremonial bill-signing on March 11. The bill essentially eliminates collective bargaining rights for public union workers except on wage issues (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Protesters hold wooden letters that spell the word "shame" in front of the Wisconsin State Capitol on March 10. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald makes the argument to pass the budget repair bill before the State Assembly in the State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, Thursday, March 10. (Allen Fredrickson / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Spectators in the gallery of the Wisconsin assembly chambers chant "shame" in protest after the House voted to pass the state's controversial budget bill in the Wisconsin assembly chamber on Thursday in Madison. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Democratic Rep. Jon Richards yells after a vote was cast in the Wisconsin Assembly chambers Thursday in Madison. (Morry Gash / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Wisconsin State Rep. Brett Hulsey (D-WI) flashes the peace sign after the House voted to pass the state's controversial budget bill in the Wisconsin assembly chamber on Thursday in Madison. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The statue "Forward" displays a new sign at the State Capitol in Madison on Thursday, the day after the Senate passed the governor's controversial budget repair bill. (Steve Apps / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Erving Smith, of Madison, Wis., shouts at law enforcement personnel after he was slightly injured while being carried out of the Assembly Room lobby in Madison on Thursday, March 10. (John Hart / Wisconsin State Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Protesters get kicked out by police from the Wisconsin state assembly chamber as they try to block access to the chambers in Madison on March 10. (Carlos Javier Ortiz / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Wisconsin Rep. Cory Mason, center, talks to protesters in the rotunda of the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Wednesday, March 9, after demonstrators retook the Capitol building. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kensoha, center, calls an impromptu news conference March 9 after Republicans in the Wisconsin Senate voted to strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from public workers after discovering a way to bypass the chamber's missing Democrats. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Tears roll down the face of Liz Sanger of Madison, Wis., after the state Senate passed the budget repair bill following a meeting of a state Legislature conference committee at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., March 9. (Michael P. King / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Wisc. Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, is escorted out of the state Capitol in Madison, March 9, after Republicans in the Senate voted to strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from public workers after discovering a way to bypass the chamber's missing Democrats. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Opponents of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill deride legislators as they leave the senate parlor at the Wisconsin State Capitol Building where the Senate voted to move forward on an amended version of the controversial bill Wednesday. (John Hart / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. After a protester outside throws a snowball hitting a window at the state Capitol, State Rep. Amy Sue Vruwink, D-Milladore, implores demonstrators to remain peaceful during a press conference of Democratic state Assembly members, March 9. (Michael P. King / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Helmut Kenies of the Wisconsin Historical Society sifts through hundreds of signs that were removed from the Wisconsin State Capitol on Tuesday, March 8 in Madison. Posters that were left behind by demostrators that occupied the State Capitol were collected and are being made available for people to claim them until this Friday. Select posters that are not claimed will be acquired by the Historical Society. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Filmmaker Michael Moore speaks to a crowd during a march and rally at the Wisconsin State Capitol on Saturday, March 5 in Madison. Thousands of demonstrators are staging a protest at the Capitol against Governor Scott Walker's attempt to push through a bill that would restrict collective bargaining for most government workers in the state. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Union members protest inside the Wisconsin Capitol on Friday, March 4, in Madison. Some demonstrators returned to the Capitol hours after they were forced to vacate the building after occupying it for more than two weeks. They are protesting Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to push through a bill that would restrict collective bargaining for most government workers in the state. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Republican state Sen. Glenn Grothman talks with demonstrators Mark Dziedzic, left, and Jeff Dziedzic inside the state Capitol on March 4. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Wisconsin Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kensoha, celebrates with other lawmakers and protesters March 3 outside of the state Capitol in Madison after a judge ordered the Department of Administration to open the Capitol to normal business hours. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A police officer blocks an entrance of the Wisconsin State Capitol on Thursday. A Wisconsin judge ordered all of the pro-union protesters to leave the Capitol after they had camped out inside the building for two weeks. The judge also ruled that the state had violated the public's free speech and assembly rights by restricting access to the building. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Protesters celebrate as they walk outside of the state Capitol after a judge ordered the Department of Administration to open the Capitol to normal business hours. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Protesters wake-up outside of the state Capitol, Thursday in Madison after sleeping the night. Opponents to the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers are in their 16th day of protests. The Wisconsin Department of Administration officials shut the doors to many protesters and some chose to sleep outside. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Wisconsin State representative Fred Clark. left, meets with constituents at his desk outside the capitol building on March 2. Clark and several other Democrat members of the assembly moved their offices outside the building because of the difficulties the public was having entering the building which has been essentially locked down to prevent protestors from spending the night inside. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Demonstrators protest in a hallway below the assembly chamber where Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was delivering his budget address to a joint session of the legislature at the capitol on March 1. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Union Iron Worker Randy Bryce of Milwaukee shows police a court order to open the doors of the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., Tuesday, March 1. It was the 14th day of protests against the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Opponents to the governor's bill protest at the state Capitol on March 1. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Democrats refuse to stand as Gov. Scott Walker arrives to deliver his budget address to a joint session of the Legislature, March 1 in Madison. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Police stand in the rotunda of the State Capitol on Feb. 27 in Madison. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Damon Terrrell speaks to protesters at the State Capitol in on Feb. 27. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Opponents to the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers protest outside of the State Capitol on Feb. 26. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Rally supporters hang an American flag from fourth floor windows of the State Capitol as thousands of opponents of Governor Scott Walker's budget repair bill gather for ongoing protests inside and outside the State Capitol on Feb. 26. (John Hart / Wisconsin State Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Protesters gather in the rotunda of the Wisconsin Capitol in Madison the morning of Friday, Feb. 25, after the Assembly passed a bill ending most state worker collective bargaining rights. (Carlos Javier Ortiz / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Protesters who identified themselves as Kenosha city and county workers hold signs as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's plane flies away after his news conference about his budget repair bill at the Kenosha Airport in Kenosha, Wis., on Friday, Feb. 25. (Mark Hertzberg / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Messages left by supporters protesting in the State Capitol are stuck on the office entrance of Wisconsin State Assemblyman Brett Hulsey on Feb. 25. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Ryan Eykholt of Madison, Wis., plays "This Land Is Your Land" during a protest at the state Capitol in Madison on Friday, Feb. 25, over the governor's proposed budget measures. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. Standing beside fellow Assembly Democrats, State Rep. Christine Sinicki approaches the front of the chamber in outrage as their Republican counterparts cut off debate and vote on the budget repair bill in session at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., early Friday morning, Feb. 25. (Michael P. King / Wisconsin State Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. Protester Bridgette O'Brien of Elroy, Wis., does a morning routine of yoga at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Friday, Feb. 25 before another day of protesting. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. Escorted by law enforcement officers, Assembly Republicans exit the state Capitol after cutting off debate and rapidly voting to pass a controversial budget repair bill in the state Assembly in Madison, Wis., on Friday, Feb. 25. (Michael P. King / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. Assembly Democrats wave to protesters, thanking them after Republicans cut off debate and rapidly voted to pass a controversial budget repair bill in the state Assembly at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., early Friday, Feb. 25. (Michael P. King / Wisconsin State Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. Wisconsin Reps. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, left, and Donna Seidel, D-Wausau, walk to the governor's office at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Thursday, Feb. 24. Opponents of the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers were in their 10th day of protests. Gov. Scott Walker was trying to get at least one Democratic senator back to the Capitol to vote on the bill. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. Wisconsin Democratic state Sens. Tim Cullen, left, and Robert Jauch leave a home on Thursday, Feb. 24, in Woodstock, Ill. The senators have been in Illinois after leaving Wisconsin to try to stop a vote on bill that would take away public workers' collective bargaining rights. (Lauren M. Anderson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  46. Opponents of the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers sleep on the floor of the rotunda at the state Capitol on Feb. 24. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  47. Wisconsin state representatives start to fade as they listen to arguments on one of the expected 200 amendments to the governor's budget bill early Feb. 24. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  48. A protester sleeps on the floor in the Capitol on Feb. 23. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  49. Protesters sleep in the rotunda of the Capitol on Feb. 23. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  50. Democratic and Republican assembly members rise before the start of a session Feb. 22. (Darren Hauck / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  51. Teamsters President James Hoffa speaks at a rally in the Capitol on Feb. 23. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  52. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker pauses while giving an address in Madison on Feb. 22. to explain his budget bill. (Pool / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  53. A man sits surrounded by protesters' signs at the state Capitol in Madison on Feb. 22. (Darren Hauck / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  54. Protesters walk outside the Wisconsin Capitol on Feb. 22. (Jeffrey Phelps / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  55. Opponents of Walker's budget bill sleep in the rotunda on Feb. 22. (John Hart / Wisconsin State Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  56. John Henneman, left, and Dan Kuhl, right, teachers from Wisconsin Rapids, protest Feb. 21 outside the King Street entrance to the Capitol. (Steve Apps / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  57. A protester gestures in the Capitol building, after a week's mass protest against Walker's bill on Feb. 21. (Darren Hauck / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  58. Kathryn Schulze delivers a silent message at the state Capitol on Feb. 21. (Jeffrey Phelps / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  59. Protesters rest inside the State Capitol on Feb. 21 in Madison. (Jeffrey Phelps / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  60. Arnold Chevalier, left, of Stoughton, Wis., shouts inside the State Capitol on Monday. (Jeffrey Phelps / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  61. State Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-WI) speaks to Democratic Senators via telephone during a meeting of the committee for Senate Organization inside the Wisconsin State Capitol on Monday. (Eric Thayer / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  62. A union advocate, left, and a Tea Party supporter argue in Madison, Wis. on Feb. 19, on the grounds of State Capitol over the governor's proposed budget bill. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  63. About 30 members of the AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, protest State Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester on Feb. 19. (Scott Anderson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  64. Protesters gather outside the state Capitol in Madison, Wis. on Feb. 19. A few dozen police officers stood between supporters of Republican Gov. Scott Walker on the muddy east lawn of the Capitol and the much larger group of pro-labor demonstrators who surrounded them. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  65. Protestors take a moment to rest inside a bus shelter as crowds continue to gather at the State Capitol grounds, while members of the Wisconsin state government discuss the proposed bill by Gov. Scott Walker in Madison on Feb. 19. (Darren Hauck / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  66. Democratic Wisconsin Assembly members cheer on the crowd on the fourth day of large scale protests outside of the State Capitol in Madison on Feb. 18. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  67. Teacher Nicole North Hester, right, cries and applauds as union iron workers pass by during the fourth day of large demonstrations at the State Capitol on Feb. 18. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  68. Two protesters put up a sign at the State Capitol on Feb. 17, that reads "Run Dems Run" in support of 14 state Senators that have left the state in opposition the bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: Massive crowds gather to see 14 democratic senators that left state to protest bill proposed by Gov. Walker as crowds continued to protest at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison
    Darren Hauck / Reuters
    Above: Slideshow (68) Protests in Wisconsin
  2. Joe Heller / Green Bay Press Gazette, Politicalcartoons.com
    Slideshow (7) Wisconsin Protests

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