As a Wisconsin Election Takes A Fishy Turn, is the Tea Turning Toxic?

What had been a low-profile state Supreme Court election in Wisconsin yesterday drew national attention as it appeared to be an early indicator of impending toxic blowback from the Tea Party’s hard-line politics.


Progressive challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg appeared yesterday to have pulled off a surprise victory over incumbent conservative justice David Prosser. Prosser, who had expected an easy win, initially looked to have lost by 204 votes, largely as a result of high voter turnout by Wisconsinites angry about Governor Scott Walker’s battle with state unions.

Surprise Again!

Now the tables are turned. In what the Washington Post called a "stunning twist," a County clerk announced Thursday that she had forgotten to record 14,000 votes, which gave Prosser the lead by 7,500 votes. Clerk Kathy Nickolaus (R) of heavily Republican Waukesha County said that she had inadvertently failed to import and save information into the database, omitting the votes. Nickolaus previously worked under Prosser in the Assembly GOP Caucus years ago when Prosser was Assembly Minority Leader.

As County clerk, Nickolaus set off a firestorm of criticism last year from the Waukesha County Board when she refused to agree to comply with the recommendations of the board following an audit. That audit had been requested after the county's director of administration found Nickolaus uncooperative with attempts to have the county's experts review her systems. In addition, the board had taken issue with Nickolaus's decision not to report municipal election results on election night. 

Kloppenbug and Prosser's campaigns are already collecting money and lawyers in case of a challenge. Under Wisconsin law, only the candidates can request a recount.

Madison, Round Two

Madison was rocked by weeks of protest following the introduction of a bill by Governor Walker that would strip public employee unions of collective bargaining rights, and now has evolved into the epicenter of a Tea-Party pushback. Nationwide, demonstrations were held in solidarity with the Wisconsin workers, and donations to Kloppenburg’s campaign suddenly poured in from across the country. Recall drives have been started against sixteen Wisconsin state senators, and recall elections could be started as early as June. Eight of the Senators targeted are Republicans who voted in favor of Walker’s anti-union bill, and the other eight are the Democrats who fled the state to avoid a quorum in an attempt to thwart the bill’s passage. 

While a recount is expected for the Supreme Court seat, the final vote may prove to be the least interesting part of this story. More interesting is the sudden resistance in the country to the hard-line conservative politics embraced by many of the winners of the midterm elections. As the Scott Walkers of the world suddenly find themselves a political liability to their conservative brethren, what will it mean to someone such as Michele Bachmann, who has made a political name on a platform of extreme social conservatism?

Tea Party Schism

Added to this political bad taste left behind Walker’s anti-union legislation is a schism in the magic of the Tea Party story. What was once widely portrayed as a grassroots movement from middle-America has now taken on the character of more a traditional conservative agenda (see Karl Rove and the billionaire Republican backers Koch brothers). Small-government libertarians in the party are at odds by the more conservative activist-types, who seek to expand government's reach over things like immigration, prohibiting gay marriage and abortion.  Tony Perkins, head of the conservative Family Research Council, has said that a majority of Tea Party voters self-identify as conservative evangelicals.  Conservative senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) effectively alienated a large portion of the Tea Party by seeming to argue that libertarians don't exist, saying "you can't be a fiscal conservative and not be a social conservative."

The split is quickly becoming evident at a federal level as well, as the Republican House struggles internally between those whose agenda includes remaining electable enough to promote a conservative agenda, and those whose entire agenda is to cut the budget, regardless of the political fall-out. Many in the Tea Party feel that their success and momentum has been co-opted by the Republican establishment and is now being used to promote a conservative social agenda — even at the expense of budget cuts. Even Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann are at odds over the next step, with Palin tweeting "Let him shut it" while Bachmann suggested a compromise may be in order.

Libertarian-minded Tea Party activists voted in a number of the nation's current GOP crop, but now pose a threat to the GOP, as disillusion with current Republican leadership may lead them to mount a challenge to the Republican front-runner in the coming presidential primaries which could harm Republican chances. 

Speaking in New York City at the 20th anniversary convention of the National Action Network, senior campaign strategist David Axelrod mused about the turning tide of voters. 

"[T]he atmosphere in Wisconsin has changed dramatically," he said. "If you reran the same race that you ran in November, [Scott Walker] would lose and not by a few votes. I think independent voters have seen enough to know they're uncomfortable. I think democratic voters are mobilized. And I think that's a microcosm of what's going on in many places around the country."