By James B. Kelleher
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Wisconsin voters head to the polls on Tuesday for the first time since Republicans approved controversial restrictions on the union rights of public workers that Democrats and their supporters vowed to reverse.
Little noticed most years, the election of a Wisconsin state Supreme Court judge has become a proxy fight over collective bargaining restrictions approved last month.
The judicial candidates themselves are bystanders, according to Mordecai Lee, who served in the state Assembly and Senate from 1977 to 1989 and teaches government at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.
"They've lost control of the campaigns because of external events and now they're just passive observers, really unimportant to what public opinion is battling over," he said.
Wisconsin has taken center stage in a national debate over worker rights that has spread to more than a dozen states.
It has also exposed a stark partisan divide in Wisconsin and triggered protests, lawsuits and more than a dozen recall campaigns targeting supporters and opponents of the plan.
In the case of the Supreme Court election, the defeat of a Republican incumbent justice would flip the state's highest court to a 4-3 liberal majority.
"A lot of what is confronting us may have resolution in the court system," said Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council union.
Ned Ryun, the founder and president of American Majority, a conservative group that has organized rallies supporting Walker and the anti-union measure, agrees.
"I feel like the first battle in the war was won," Ryun said. "If there's a significant loss in the next few fights, maybe the war is lost."
HIGH TEMPERS AND TURNOUT
Turnout could reach 35 percent this year in a state where 20 percent turnout is typical for a spring election, Lee said.
"Does it feel like an extraordinary time?" Ryun said. "Absolutely. It's almost like everything is hitting the fan at once."
The debate has been rancorous and political experts see an atmosphere of deep distrust that may take years to heal.
"You would have to go back to the 19th century to find a period as vitriolic as this one," said John Gurda, a Milwaukee historian and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper columnist.
The conflict started days after Republican Governor Scott Walker took office in January when he proposed a measure to eliminate most bargaining rights for public sector workers and require them to pay more for benefits, to close a budget gap.
Critics saw the bill, which eliminates automatic deduction of union dues, as a Republican attack on the single biggest source of funding for the Democratic Party -- unions.
So when the measure passed, they sued, claiming the Republicans had violated Wisconsin's strict Open Meetings Laws during a key point during the legislative debate.
A state court judge has halted the law's implementation for as much as two months while she considers arguments.
LAWSUITS COULD MAKE HIGH COURT KEY
Whatever the outcome, the case is sure to be appealed to the state Supreme Court and voters will decide Tuesday whether the court holds a slim conservative or liberal majority.
Republican incumbent David Prosser faces Democratic challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg for a 10-year term on the court.
"You have a race where it looked like the incumbent was going to walk over and now it is pretty close," said Richard Esenberg, a visiting law professor at Marquette University and a self-described conservative.
Charles Franklin, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and the co-developer of the website Pollster.com, says the results will be a barometer.
"If the Democrats win, then it sends a strong message to GOP representatives and senators that the left is aroused and angry," Franklin said.
"If despite all the uproar Justice Prosser is reelected, then it is a huge win for the GOP, showing they can weather the current storm and giving them much better hopes in the upcoming recall elections. So yes, there is a lot at stake here."
In addition to the elections, state legislators are scheduled on Tuesday to consider Walker's budget bill for the fiscal year ending June 30 that allows the state to sell $165 million in general obligation bonds.
It will be the first time the full Senate has met since late February, when the body's 14 Democrats fled to Illinois in an unsuccessful effort to stop the anti-union law.
VOTERS MAY FORCE RECALL ELECTIONS
In a second notable election, Milwaukee County voters will choose a new top executive, the position Walker vacated to become governor. Walker was the first Republican elected to the top job in Milwaukee County by winning over blue-collar ethnic voters, Lee said.
The recent disputes in Madison may have renewed those voters' connections to unions, Lee said.
The heated partisan fight over the Walker bill also has spawned efforts to hold recall elections for all 16 Democratic and Republican state senators eligible under state law. Senators have to be in office at least a year to be recalled.
Wisconsin has only had four legislative recall elections in its 163-year history, and never multiple recalls.
The petition drives target eight Republicans who voted for the Walker bill and eight Democrats who left Wisconsin.
Republicans hold a 19-14 majority and Democrats would need a net gain of three seats to take control of the Senate. Democratic control of the Senate would make it more difficult for Republicans to press bills through the legislature.
Even conservative activists who support the measure say a turnover in the chamber could be in the cards.
Ryun at American Majority said he was confident two of the eight Democrats could be forced into special elections, but six of eight Republicans also could face recall votes.
"And quite frankly, of those six, I think they've got a good chance of knocking off two," Ryun said.
Democrats filed the first recall petitions Friday aimed at forcing Republican Senator Dan Kapanke into a special election. Other petitions are expected to follow.
The recall campaigns have put unprecedented pressure on the Government Accountability Board, a small agency that has the duty to review the recall petitions. The agency has requested additional money from the legislature to hire staff.
(Additional reporting by David Bailey)