Wisconsin voters sent Republican Gov. Scott Walker a clear message about their unhappiness with his muscling through a law restricting union rights 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. 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.
"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.
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 a recount is expected.
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.
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."
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.
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."
Associated Press writers Scott Bauer and Jason Smathers in Madison contributed to this report.