Prosser’s independent cred increasingly is the backbone of his message, especially as portions of the electorate sour on Walker’s bill and the GOP in general. To bolster his cause, he has enlisted strong bipartisan backing from the political establishment. Two former Badger State governors, Tommy Thompson, a Republican, and Patrick Lucey, a Democrat, serve as his campaign chairmen. Four former Supreme Court justices are in his camp, as are a bevy of district attorneys, sheriffs, and lawmakers.
Prosser’s kitchen cabinet has been an asset, says Sheriff David Clarke, Milwaukee’s top law-enforcement official and self-described “Kennedy Democrat.” He says that Prosser may find support from more Democrats — and cops — than most liberal politicos realize. “I have been in law enforcement for 33 years in this county,” he says. “I don’t like activist judges who tend to legislate from the bench.”
Kloppenburg, he sighs, “has tipped her hand that she will be an activist judge by her associations and some of her coded language in the debates.” He wants none of that.
Nevertheless, despite cross-party support, Prosser’s reputation has a few nicks. He is known, friends say, for both his sharp mind and his quick temper. In any other year, Prosser’s prickly nature would be shrugged off, but Kloppenburg’s allies are doing everything they can to make an issue out of Prosser’s past outbursts. Last week, leaked e-mails of Prosser’s calling Chief Justice Abrahamson an expletive and threatening to “destroy” her were published. Prosser attributed the harsh words to heated internal court communications and apologized. He added, in interviews, that though he was wrong to have used salty language, he was participating in the give-and-take of a court known for its activism and dysfunction.
State GOP operatives say they are confident that Prosser can overcome any slams against his character. As a former assembly speaker and justice for more than a decade, he will be able to dodge the small punches. “He had so much support before this all started,” chimes Rep. Michelle Litjens, a Republican in the state assembly. “He is seen as a very fair, levelheaded, and balanced individual. People supported him before, and I know they will stick with him.”
Republicans are taking nothing for granted. Mark Jefferson, the executive director of the state GOP, acknowledges that the race has become high-stakes drama. Party leaders, he tells me, will be reaching out to voters via social-media tools, such as Facebook and Twitter, to campaign for Prosser, since they cannot give directly to his campaign per campaign-finance rules.
With the state Republican apparatus mostly sitting on its hands and wallets, the Wisconsin Club for Growth is planning to step in with more than $300,000 to boost Prosser. They did the same for him during the primary, playing a major role in generating early momentum. Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), a chamber of commerce–type group, will also be instrumental in helping Prosser compete financially with the GWC and its progressive offshoots.
James Buchen, vice president of WMC, says that his organization is prepared to spend millions to lift Prosser’s campaign. “We can’t quite match the $3 million from [the GWC], but we will come very close,” he says. “There is quite of bit of energy on the right — the silent majority, if you will. So this could go either way.”
As the campaign hurtles toward the finish line, “turnout could carry the day,” observes Gary Marx, the executive director of the Judicial Crisis Network. “The Left is making this a blood feud; they are making this about vengeance.”
Any enthusiasm gap, he says, will only be widened, since the April ballot is sparse. “This resembles a special election; it stands alone. Republicans will need to remember the basic blocking and tackling of grassroots politics — mail, phone, and radio.”
According to state-election figures, nonpartisan spring elections usually draw less than 20 percent of the electorate: 18 percent in 2009, 19 percent in 2008, 19 percent in 2007, and 12 percent in 2006. To win, GOP officials say Prosser will need to draw strong numbers from emerging conservative pockets in Waukesha, Washington, Ozaukee, and Racine counties. If voters from these areas don’t show, but liberals pile into voting booths in Dane County and Madison proper, Kloppenburg could cruise to victory.
“Look, this race is not a referendum on the governor or a specific piece of legislation,” Brian Nemoir says. “It has a much broader scope. supreme-court judges are elected to ten-year terms on purpose. Their elections are not intended to be snapshot responses to the current political environment.”
For Team Prosser, and nervous conservatives, that is the hope.
—Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.