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Legislature heats up Supreme Court race

Susan Nelson lives in northern Iowa, a couple hours from the Wisconsin border, but like much of the rest of the western world she's intensely interested in what's happening at the Capitol in Madison -- and not just in the Legislature.

Susan Nelson lives in northern Iowa, a couple hours from the Wisconsin border, but like much of the rest of the western world she's intensely interested in what's happening at the Capitol in Madison -- and not just in the Legislature.

Just hours after Senate Republicans voted to pare back collective bargaining the other night and set off a firestorm of protest, Nelson turned her attention toward another part of the same building -- the Supreme Court -- and the upcoming election that will decide who sits on it: incumbent justice and former Republican Assembly Speaker David Prosser or his challenger, an assistant attorney general by the little-known name of JoAnne Kloppenburg.

"Tonight," Nelson wrote on the Kloppenburg campaign's Facebook page, "this race just got red hot. The egregious acts of the Wisconsin GOP will almost certainly be litigated in the state Supreme Court. I am donating to your campaign even though I live in Iowa."

Nelson is a lawyer so it might be natural for her to quickly shift attention to the Supreme Court that many expect to hear at least one lawsuit over the legality of Senate Republicans' vote. But she's far from the only one now focusing in on a Supreme Court race that Kloppenburg had about as much chance of winning as Charlie Sheen.

Christopher Westby is a Madison guy who started up a Facebook page of his own in late February after, he tells me, "a conversation about the importance of Kloppenburg getting elected with a local AFSCME representative at the Tom Morello (of Rage Against the Machine) show at the Monona Terrace."

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The name of the page: "A vote for Kloppenburg is a vote against Walker." The page is actually a way of advertising an "event" to the public: the April election. He says 8,000 people have already "RSVP'd to vote."

Westby says he's not affiliated with the Kloppenburg campaign but there's no doubt the candidate's daughter -- if not the campaign itself -- is aware of the rising interest on social media sites and is trying to capitalize on it.

Shalako Kloppenburg, JoAnne Kloppenburg's adult daughter -- and someone JoAnne Kloppenburg's campaign manager, Melissa Mulliken, says is not formally affiliated with the campaign -- posted a message on Westby's public page, in fact, asking people to "head over to my mom's page."

At least some appear to be taking her advice.

Both campaigns are quick to disavow any preconceived inclination to rule one way or another on potential litigation.

But that's not stopping the pigeonholing -- or altering well-known affiliations.

Kloppenburg has long supported Democrats financially and the campaign makes no secret of the fact she, during law school, interned for the liberal stalwart, Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson. It also isn't shy about criticizing a December press release by a Prosser campaign director saying Prosser would be a "complement" to the new administration.

Prosser, for his part, has said he wouldn't personally have use the word "complement" and describes himself as both non-partisan and in the middle of the court. According to an analysis by the Wisconsin Law Journal, he is, in fact, a much less predictable vote than other justices typically described as being on the conservative side.

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The truth is, in the meantime, that Prosser has long had the benefit of a little electoral luck. Initially appointed by former governor Tommy Thompson in 1998, he was elected to a 10-year term with no opposition three years later. Even now, he has continued to enjoy high name recognition and the benefit of a little-known opponent who, like him, accepted public financing and therefore won't have much money.

David Prosser has always, in addition, always benefitted from pretty good timing.

Until now.

Mike Nichols is a syndicated columnist who spent 18 years writing about Wisconsin for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He is now a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. This column represents only his personal opinion. Contact him at MRNichols@wi.rr.com .

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