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Backlash at the polls in Wisconsin

AP

Emma Collins, left, Elias Lyam, 14, and Eileen Collins watch early election results for Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate JoAnne Kloppenburg in Madison, Wis. on Tuesday. Kloppenburg faces incumbent Justice David Prosser.

From NBC’s John Yang and Domenico Montanaro
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker wasn't on Tuesday's ballot, but he -- and his effort to limit the collective-bargaining rights for public workers -- may have been the big losers amid near-record, non-November turnout.

In the only statewide race, which went from low-profile to a closely watched referendum on Walker and his controversial measure after protests roiled the state capitol, Supreme Court Justice David Prosser, a former Republican Speaker, is locked in a too-close-to-call battle with Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg, who has the backing of unions and liberal groups. With 99 percent of the state's precincts reporting, Prosser had a 585-vote lead out of more than 1.4 million ballots cast. A recount is likely.

A Kloppenburg win would change a 4-3 conservative majority on the court into a 4-3 liberal majority.

In the four-candidate February primary, before the controversy over the collective bargaining bill exploded, Prosser got 55 percent of the vote and Kloppenburg just 25 percent.

Prosser addressed supporters at about 1:40 this morning, saying: "I've weathered the nuclear blast, and I'm still standing." Earlier, Kloppenburg told her supporters: "It's not over yet. We're still hopeful."

And in Milwaukee County, Democrat Chris Abele, a political neophyte who runs his Boston family's philanthropy, trounced Jeff Stone, a veteran Republican state lawmaker, in a special election to replace Walker as County Executive, 61%-39%. Stone's two votes for the collective bargaining bill in the state Assembly were issues in the campaign.

Kloppenburg appears to have benefited from a very high turnout, which rivaled the turnout in past April presidential primary elections -- 1,472,921 people turned out to vote in this election (736,878 for Prosser, 736,043 for Kloppenburg). That’s very close to the total number of people who turned out for the 2008 presidential primaries -- 1,498,068 and more than the hotly contested Democratic primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, where more than 1.1 million people voted.

In the liberal bastion of Madison, officials said turnout was about 70 percent, with Kloppenburg winning 73 percent of the vote. In Eau Claire County, turnout was so heavy that polling places ran out of machine-readable ballots and had to use hand-counted ballots; the challenger won 58 percent. In left-leaning Milwaukee County, where turnout was also driven by the county executive's race, she won 57 percent of the vote.

In the race for Milwaukee County Executive, 222,761 people turned out to vote (134,848 for Abele; 87,913 for Stone). That’s almost as many people who turned out for the 2008 presidential primaries, when a total of 251,942 people voted in Milwaukee County -- and more than the Obama-Clinton primary, when 205,931 people voted.

While the turnout may not be a record, the Supreme Court race did set a record for the amount of money spent by special interest groups: $3.5 million, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. The top spender was the liberal Greater Wisconsin Committee which spent $1.4 million backing Kloppenburg.

Wisconsin does not have automatic recounts. A candidate has three business days after the last county reports its official vote count--usually the Monday or Tuesday after Election Day -- to request a recount. They're free to campaigns as long as the margin between the candidates is less than 0.5%.