In one of the most politically charged judicial elections since Rose Bird lost her seat in California, Wisconsin voters marched to the polls and delivered … a dead heat.  Fewer than 600 votes separate incumbent Justice David Prosser and his labor-backed opponent, JoAnne Kloppenburg, with Prosser barely in front.  Almost 1.5 million voters cast ballots in this race, not far from the 2.1 million who voted in November’s Senate race, an indication of the stakes involved in this election:

Justice David Prosser clung to a narrow lead over Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg in the state Supreme Court race early Wednesday, after a hard-fought campaign dominated by political forces and outside interest groups.

But even with 99% of the vote counted, fewer than 600 votes – about 0.04% of ballots – separated the candidates. And The Associated Press said early Wednesday that the race was too close to call and that it would take hours or most of the day to get a final tally.

That close margin had political insiders from both sides talking about the possibility of a recount, which Wisconsin has avoided in statewide races in recent decades. Any recount could be followed by lawsuits – litigation that potentially would be decided by the high court.

The razor-thin result was the latest twist in Wisconsin’s ongoing political turmoil. The state has drawn the attention of the nation in recent weeks because of the fight over a controversial law sharply restricting public employee unions, which caused massive weeks-long protests in the Capitol, a boycott of the Senate by Democrats and attempts to recall senators from both parties.

The recount process may take weeks or even months, depending on who wins the official tally and how hard the other fights.  In Minnesota, we have some experience with recounts, of course, and the one that finally settled the 2008 Senate campaign between Al Franken and Norm Coleman took until the following summer to conclude.  It’s an easy bet that the unions have already begun to flood the zone with lawyers to assist in the recount and cash for operations supporting Kloppenburg.  If anyone in Prosser’s camp wants to heed the lessons of the Minnesota recall, calls should be going out today for a similar effort — and probably should have started a week ago or more.

But the unions have a bigger problem.  Many gave Prosser little chance of holding his seat in this off-year, otherwise sleepy election, as unions organized fiercely to unseat him before the state Supreme Court could hear the challenge to Scott Walker’s law.  Given the usual lack of turnout for April elections in off years, the organizing power of the unions should have been overwhelming, and Prosser should have been toast even in less-progressive areas of the state.  Instead, Wisconsin voters thundered to the polls to support Prosser, and Kloppenburg turned out to do poorly outside of Dane and Milwaukee counties — and even in Milwaukee, Kloppenburg led by just a 57/43 margin.

What should have been a slam-dunk if Walker’s proposal was really as extreme and disaffecting as unions claim turned out to be an even split.  Given their power and the investment of time and money by the unions, this is an eye-opening stumble.

Update: There are still a few precincts left to count, but the number shifted significantly in Prosser’s direction this morning:

As of 7:35 this morning, the Associated Press had results for all but 24 of the state’s 3,630 precincts and Prosser’s overnight lead had grown slightly from fewer than 600 votes to 835 votes.

I think we’re heading into a recount either way, but let’s compare the Minnesota recount numbers.  Norm Coleman went into the recount with a lead of 215 votes out of nearly 3 million cast, and the recount and challenge resulted in a Franken victory of 312 votes.  Assuming Prosser maintains an 835-vote lead before a recount, it’s a significant number with a smaller pool of challenges than we saw in Minnesota.

Update (AP): Good lord. With just 10 precincts still left to report, Kloppenburg now leads by 140 votes — 738,368 to 738,228. Of the 10 remaining precincts, eight are in counties where Kloppenburg currently leads. Gulp.

If you’re holding your breath waiting for the recount to start, exhale now. It’ll be a long, long time coming.

Update (AP): Just five precincts to go now and Kloppenburg’s lead has opened to not quite 500 votes.

Update (AP): As of 12:45 ET, 3629 of 3630 precincts are reporting — and Kloppenburg still leads by 224 votes. Two caveats, though. First, the vote totals didn’t change after the last two precincts came in, so the AP may still be in the process of updating the numbers. Keep an eye out here. And second, the one remaining precinct is in Jefferson Country, which has been leaning towards Prosser. He could still close the gap. Or maybe we’ll end in … a tie.