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Wednesday, April 2, 2008

 4:55 PM 

Post-spring election WisPolitics Stock Report

--A collection of insider opinion--
(April 2, 2008)

Rising

Conservatives: Business groups like Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, issue groups like the Coalition for America's Families, the NRA, and other conservative forces spend millions of dollars to beat union-backed Justice Louis Butler. Their mostly negative ads on the crime issue echoed by conservative talk radio (Can you say "Loophole Louie"?) vault Burnett County Judge Michael Gableman from obscurity to the state Supreme Court and ensure a right-leaning tilt to the high court. It's the first upset of a sitting justice in Wisconsin since 1967. Will the coalition next set its sights on liberal Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, who's up in 2009? Conservatives also can cheer the re-election of Milwaukee Co. Exec Scott Walker in Dem-leaning Milwaukee County. Could it be the beginnings of a coalition that could help John McCain and Republican legislative candidates in November? Republicans are buoyant, saying conservatives have been energized. Dems, while admitting it wasn't a good day, mostly shrug it off saying the November elections with their expected high turnout and prez year politics will be nothing but bad news for the GOP.

Michael Gableman: The Burnett County judge rides his pro-law enforcement message to a 10-year term on the Supreme Court, becoming the first person in more than four decades to knock off a sitting justice. Though he edged Butler by about 20,000 votes, he won all but 15 counties statewide. Outside groups played a huge role in pushing Gableman over the finish line, insiders say, as he struggled to raise money and ran a TV ad that even some supporters saw as a poor choice that stalled momentum and brought bad PR amid charges of racism. But he stayed on message throughout the race, successfully contrasted his record as a prosecutor with Butler's past as a public defender and took advantage of the voters' preference for a law-and-order judge, insiders say.

Scott Walker: While ripped as a one-trick anti-tax pony by some, Walker cruises to re-election in the Milwaukee County exec's race over state Sen. Lena Taylor without getting nicked, let alone bloodied, as Dems had hoped at the beginning of the campaign. There's wide expectation among insiders that Walker will run for guv in 2010, perhaps against Dem Gov. Jim Doyle, if he seeks a third term. They say this race sets Walker up nicely as the GOP front-runner. Walker ran for guv in 2006, but pulled out of the Republican primary, allowing then-Congressman Mark Green to challenge Doyle. Insiders note Walker refused during this campaign to commit to serving a full four-year term.

Veto reformers: Voters by a wide margin OK a change to the state constitution that supporters say will limit the guv's extensive veto power. While there's some dispute about how well it will do the job, the amendment seeks to rein in the so-called "Frankenstein veto," which Doyle and other guvs have used to unilaterally write new law by stitching together words, phrases and numbers in budget bills. Lawmakers, despite Doyle's opposition, had approved the amendment first on big bipartisan votes. Still, amendment critics note a guv can still cross out words within a sentence, strike out individual digits to create new numbers and wipe out entire sentences. The guv still has the strongest veto pen in the country, and a spokeswoman reiterates that he's willing to use it.

Anti-smoking advocates: Their effort for a statewide smoking ban snuffed out for now in the Legislature, anti-smoking forces score a victory with another local ban -- this time in central Wisconsin's Marshfield. Voters in Marshfield passed a public smoking ban by a 64 percent to 36 percent margin.

Mixed

School spending issues: The three state school districts seeking the most money from local taxpayers -- more than $40 million each -- see mixed results Tuesday. The state's largest referendum -- $62.2 million to renovate and expand Brookfield Central and East high schools in Waukesha County's Elmbrook school district -- passed by a 52 percent to 48 percent margin. But the next largest referendum, $45.6 million to renovate and expand the Jefferson high school, failed by a 54 percent to 45 percent margin. And in La Crosse, voters passed a $20.9 million referendum on operating expenses but turned down a $35 million building referendum that would have involved closing two elementary schools and building one new one.

Judicial election reform: The nasty, partisan Supreme Court race already has spurred calls for reform. The Wisconsin State Journal editorial board campaigns for appointing justices to the high court through merit selection. And campaign finance reform activists again call for full public financing of high court campaigns to give candidates more than a bit role in a system that currently allows millions of dollars in secret fundraising by issue groups. The big money this time fueled a race that observers expect will easily surpass $5 million in spending by all sources. Reformers say that kind of special interest-dominated campaign is hurting democracy and the public's confidence in the judiciary. Opponents say the First Amendment won out and dismiss the complaints as sour grapes. And others say the current system, while flawed, leaves the final call up to voters. Many doubt claims that putting taxpayer money into court races would deter outside groups from ponying up millions of their own. With big special interests -- liberal and conservative -- generally opposed to campaign finance reform, and with Gov. Jim Doyle unlikely to spend a lot of political capital, insiders aren't betting on change before the next big court race in 2009.

Falling

Jim Doyle: The Dem guv wasn't on the ballot, but he was closely linked to three races that went against his interests. His 2004 appointment of Butler to the state Supreme Court was erased, his financial and personnel help to Taylor went for naught, and his veto power was curtailed in a statewide vote. Doyle's one win was the election of Lisa Neubauer to a full term on the 2nd District Court of Appeals after he put her on the bench just a few months ago. The guv is still the biggest, most powerful player at the statehouse, but Tuesday night won't be remembered fondly by guv supporters.

African-American pols: There's only been one African-American elected statewide in Wisconsin, former Secretary of State Vel Phillips. There's still only one, as Louis Butler of Milwaukee loses his second bid for a 10-year term on the state Supreme Court in a racially-tinged election. This time, he lost as the incumbent justice and first African American on the court following his appointment by Doyle in 2004; he lost his first bid in 2000 to then-Justice Diane Sykes. While some grumble about what they say were racial overtones in the race, others shoot that down as an excuse that fails to recognize Wisconsin voters prefer a conservative candidate for the bench when given an option. State Sen. Lena Taylor also loses to Walker in the Milwaukee Co. exec's race, disappointing many Dems. African-American pols also got splattered by some of the bad publicity over Michael McGee running for re-election to the Milwaukee City Council from jail, but insiders say Milele Cogg's big victory over McGee helps.

Lena Taylor: The Milwaukee state senator muffed a potential upset of Walker by micromanaging her campaign and hurting the efforts of Dems and Doyle, say critical insiders. Taylor claimed Election Night that, "We didn't lose, we made a statement." But critics say her campaign never got the money or found the issue that would topple, let alone bloody, Walker. Taylor still is a player in Madison, however, as a member of the Joint Finance Committee. But Dem insiders have doubts about her future at the ballot box beyond the state Senate.

Liberals: Unions and left-leaning issue groups try to go toe-to-toe with a big money conservative effort and come up short in a court fight for the second time in two years. Annette Ziegler, while wounded by conflict-of-interest concerns, beat Linda Clifford after liberal groups largely held their fire, and now Michael Gableman has beaten Louis Butler despite millions spent by the Greater Wisconsin Committee, WEAC and other unions. Some Dems say they have to come up with a winning message and strategy if they hope to hold onto to the liberal court members still on the bench.

Pedro Colon: The state rep loses badly in his challenge of the incumbent Milwaukee city attorney. Backed by a series of state lawmakers and even the Milwaukee DA, Colon tried to make the case that longtime City Attorney Grant Langley hadn't done enough with the office to fight crime and take on other pressing city issues. Langley countered that Colon didn't understand the office. Many had viewed Colon's run as a stepping stone to something bigger and better, but Tuesday’s loss likely hurts those ambitions, say insiders who thought it would be a closer contest. Some say he struggled to gain traction in a race that got little attention in a low-turnout election.

Louis Butler: Butler now is 0-for-2 in his bid for a 10-year term on the high court. This time, the appointed justice gets close, but is still defeated by a well-funded conservative effort that boosted Burnett Co. Judge Michael Gableman. Butler does well in the big Dem counties of Milwaukee and Dane, but wins only 15 of Wisconsin's 72 counties. One Dem strategist says the Butler campaign did all that it could do on the fundraising and paid advertising fronts, given a compact six-week campaign necessitated by a prez primary that dominated the political landscape until Feb. 19. But others say Butler's campaign missed a series of opportunities, adding it didn't help that the justice was hesitant to fully engage in the fundraising and campaigning required, preferring to be above the fray. Butler's positive story never got out, leaving him vulnerable to the expected attacks on his record as a former public defender.

See more in this Friday's WisPolitics.com REPORT.

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