Oddly timed off-year elections have become, in the past 20 years, the American version of local by-elections in European parliamentary systems—a glimpse into the national political future. In 1991, a little-known Pennsylvania Democrat named Harris Wofford scored a shocking upset in a special Senate election over the state’s wildly popular former Republican governor, Richard Thornburgh—a harbinger of the the Clinton victory in 1992 (not least because it was the race that put James Carville, who ran Wofford’s campaign, on the map). And, of course, in early 2010, came the early sign of the coming Democratic debacle when Republican Scott Brown came out of nowhere to win Teddy Kennedy’s Senate seat by 5 percentage points.
No one could have expected, however, that a state-level race for a judicial post with a 10-year term with an election in the first week of April 2011 would become the first battleground of 2012. But with the political explosion in Wisconsin following its newly elected Republican governor’s effort to end collective-bargaining privileges for state employees, that is exactly what happened. Nobody in America should have any idea who David Prosser and Joanne Klopperberg are; indeed, no political wonk outside of Madison ought to have any idea who they are. But the race between them for the Wisconsin Supreme Court, held yesterday, has turned them into canaries in the 2012 coal mine. More money was spent on this race, surely, than on any judicial election outside California in American history, with more outside agitation than any judicial race in American history.
So who shall live, and who shall die?
The photo finish—as this writing, 835 votes separate the Republican Prosser and the Democrat Klopperberg out of nearly 1.5 million cast—is very telling precisely because it is a photo finish. Both ideological camps revved up for this one; they raised comparable amounts of money; they succeeded in generating a turnout that has to be judged spectacular given the fact that the election was held on a Tuesday in April; and they basically tied. If there is any lesson to be drawn as we look ahead to 2012, and I suspect there is, it is that after Obama’s amazing victory in 2008 with a margin of nearly 7 points and the Republican comeback of 2010 with the GOP winning nationally by 6, the parties are naturally at parity.