A Victory and a Warning
Some worrisome trends are evident in Judge Prosser’s reelection.


Henry Olsen

Conservatives are right to cheer Wisconsin supreme-court justice David Prosser’s apparent reelection, but it’s worth looking closely at the results. While his victory was encouraging, Prosser won only because turnout among Milwaukee’s black voters was significantly lower than the statewide average, and because his percent of the minority vote was nearly three times as high as Gov. Scott Walker’s was in 2010. Two other 2010 GOP advantages — higher-than-normal GOP turnout and strong support from white working-class Democrats — were absent. These facts should concern conservatives who think the public is already prepared to embrace wide-scale entitlement reform.

Normally, results in Wisconsin judicial races do not closely follow partisan voting patterns, but this one did. According to Bert Kritzer, a University of Minnesota law professor, there was a 90 percent correlation between a county’s voting results for governor in 2010 and its results from last week, the highest correlation in Wisconsin history. Conservatives and liberals are doing battle nationally over whether entitlement programs should be reformed to reduce the federal debt, and Prosser and Kloppenburg were the vehicles by which those groups could register their opinions on the same question at the state level.

In a recent speech at the American Enterprise Institute, New Jersey governor Chris Christie said that public-employee pay and benefits are to states what entitlements are to the federal government. Since collective bargaining is what enables public-employee unions to obtain their generous compensation packages and pensions, collective bargaining is essentially a state-level version of an entitlement.

In selling his plan, Walker argued that Wisconsin’s deficit crisis was too large to ignore and could be faced only by cutting spending. He pointed out that collective bargaining was the biggest driver of spending, and that public-sector workers would still retain significant protection. His spending reforms, he asserted, would boost economic growth and bring jobs to Wisconsinites. The good news for conservatives is that the voters didn’t flinch when asked to endorse this version of entitlement reform. Throughout the state, most voters who backed Walker in November backed Prosser in April, and they turned out in large enough numbers to carry the day.

The vote was especially encouraging in the state’s Republican heartland. The suburban Milwaukee counties of Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington regularly deliver 65 to 70 percent of their votes to competitive GOP candidates. They gave nearly 74 percent of their vote to Prosser. Staunch GOP counties to the north of Milwaukee, up the shore of Lake Michigan, and in the Green Bay region also gave Prosser higher percentages than they gave Walker.

Yet one reason the election was so close was that turnout in most staunchly Democratic counties was higher (relative to historic levels) than that in Republican counties. Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter Craig Gilbert notes that in 2010, the reverse was true: Turnout in GOP counties was higher than normal, while that in Democratic counties was lower than normal, chiefly because Republicans were enthusiastic about voting, while Democrats were not, and the Republicans attracted most independent voters.

Statewide turnout in the judicial race was 32 percent lower than in 2010, but the decline was not uniform: In most Republican counties, the decline was a couple of percentage points more than that, while in staunch Democratic counties, it was a few points less. For instance, liberal Dane County, home to the state capital (Madison) and the University of Wisconsin, saw only an 18 percent drop, and surrounding counties, where many government and university employees live, also saw lower-than-average drops, ranging from 19 to 29 percent.

These figures suggest that the fight over collective-bargaining repeal energized liberal voters but did not excite the marginal voters who turned out in force for Republicans in 2010. This indicates that the GOP’s 2010 turnout advantage, which may have added a couple of points to its nationwide margin, will likely not persist if liberal Democrats believe entitlements are seriously endangered.