Liberal and conservative groups continued to spend heavily Monday in an attempt to influence Tuesday's Wisconsin Supreme Court election, indicating both sides consider the outcome a virtual toss-up.
The race between Justice David Prosser and Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg began as a low-key contest between a well-known incumbent and little-known challenger. But it quickly rose to national prominence after Democrats tried to turn it into a referendum on a polarizing union-rights law pushed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker. The conservative Prosser is seen as Walker's supporter, although he has told The Associated Press he doesn't necessarily agree with the law, while Kloppenburg has presented herself as a left-leaning alternative.
Groups backing both candidates have been spending $300,000 to $400,000 per day to blanket the state with TV ads, and that continued Monday, according to a group that studies judicial spending. That puts the contest on track to be the most expensive high court race in Wisconsin history.
While neither candidate's campaign would discuss their internal polling numbers, one political scientist said the frenzied pace of last-minute spending suggested a very close race. Mordecai Lee, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said groups usually cut their losses and save their money if polls show their candidate significantly behind.
"Clearly that's not happening here," Lee said.
Interest in the race surged in late February as Walker pushed his plan to strip most public workers of nearly all their collective bargaining rights. The governor has said he won't interpret Tuesday's results as an endorsement or indictment of his policies regardless of who wins. He also said voters should make their decisions based on which candidate is more qualified to interpret the Constitution, and should rely on lawmaker elections as the means to express their positions on specific laws.
Governors don't often weigh in on state Supreme Court races, but this one has been unusual. Outside groups have poured at least $3.1 million into a race that wasn't initially expected to be competitive. Prosser won a nonpartisan February primary with 55 percent of the vote while Kloppenburg finished second out of four candidates with just 28 percent.
Kloppenburg's campaign surged, however, during weeks of protests that drew up to 85,000 people to the state Capitol in opposition to Walker's plan. Walker signed the bill into law last month, but it has been on hold pending challenges in court.
Passions remain high, and absentee voting ahead of Tuesday's election has been brisk. A mayoral race in Madison and county executive races in Dane, Milwaukee and Outagamie counties also are drawing voters, but the Supreme Court race remains the most closely watched.
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The seven-member court is officially nonpartisan, but Prosser is seen as part of a conservative four-justice majority while a win by Kloppenburg would tilt the court's ideological balance to the left.
Statewide, voter turnout was expected to be about 20 percent, in line with elections that have featured a contested state Supreme Court races in the past decade, according to the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board.
However, some counties with hotly contested local races were preparing for much higher turnout, led by the city of Madison. City clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl said 7,190 absentee ballots had already been submitted by Monday, outpacing the absentee count from the presidential primary in February 2008.
Witzel-Behl predicted a 60 percent turnout, which would be a record for an April election since Madison started keeping records in 1984.
Sara Hickey, a deputy county clerk in Outagamie County in eastern Wisconsin, said turnout there was expected to reach 30 percent, nearly double the 2009 turnout.
With forecasts of clear skies and temperatures ranging from the mid-40s to mid-50s, weather wasn't expected to be an issue.
Demonstrations began anew Monday in Madison as thousands of union protesters swarmed the Capitol to remember the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s death. Union organizers handed out Kloppenburg bumper stickers on the Capitol steps while other protesters stood on the lawn with giant letters spelling out "Prosser(equals)Walker."
Prosser, who hopes to be re-elected to a second, full 10-year term, spent Monday shaking hands with baseball fans at the Milwaukee Brewers' home opener and planned to visit local law firms in the afternoon, a campaign spokesman said. Kloppenburg, meanwhile, had meet-and-greet stops in Beloit, Racine, Green Bay, Milwaukee and Fond du Lac, said her campaign manager. Both said their candidates were feeling confident.
Wisconsin has a recent history of costly Supreme Court races. Outside groups spent a record $3.4 million here in 2008, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a New York University program that tracks media spending on judicial races. After a quiet race in 2009, spending this year reached $3.1 million through Sunday, and a burst of last-minute ads indicated it could top $3.7 million.