MADISON, Wis (Reuters) - The Republican incumbent in Wisconsin's closely watched Supreme Court race was one step closer to being officially declared the winner on Friday after officials finished their review of the vote.
Milwaukee county was the last of the state's 72 counties to wrap up its canvass and submit the results to the Government Accountability Board, which oversees elections.
The statewide results in the race, which came to be seen as a referendum on Republican efforts to curb public sector unions, still must be certified -- something unlikely to happen before next Wednesday, when the deadline passes for the candidates to request a recount.
But the unofficial count shows the incumbent, former Republican state assemblyman David Prosser, with a lead of more than 7,000 votes over the challenger, an assistant state attorney specializing in environmental issues named JoAnne Kloppenburg.
Races for the high court are normally low-profile affairs. But this year, the contest took on added significance because it was the first statewide race since the Republican-controlled legislature approved a proposal by Governor Scott Walker to restrict public workers union rights.
Several legal challenges to the law are also making their way toward the state's top court -- giving the race's outcome additional importance.
Prosser's apparent victory means the high court's current 4-3 conservative majority will stand, something that opponents of the anti-union measure regard with concern.
Walker and the Republicans who backed the curbs on collective bargaining by public workers said they were needed to help close budget gaps across the state.
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.
The deeply partisan fight was part of a broader national confrontation between the Republicans and unions that could be the biggest since then President Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers nearly 30 years ago. Lawmakers in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and several other states pushed anti-union measures of their own.
The stakes are high for labor because more than a third of U.S. public employees such as teachers, police and civil service workers belong to unions while only 6.9 percent of private sector workers are unionized. In Wisconsin, 46.6 percent of government workers are union members
(Reporting by James B. Kelleher and Jeff Mayers)