The race for U.S. Senate in Wisconsin could well determine which party controls the Senate majority next January. Sen. Ron Johnson (R) is facing voters for the first time since he was elected in the 2010 “Tea Party” wave that swept fellow Republican Gov. Scott Walker to office in Wisconsin. Democrats have placed their hopes to capture the seat on Sen. Russ Feingold (D), who served in the Senate for three terms before losing to Johnson.
Republicans have traditionally struggled to hold or win Senate seats in Wisconsin during presidential elections. In fact, the last time a Republican won a Wisconsin Senate race during a presidential year was 1980, when Bob Kasten (R) denied Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D) a fourth term.
Earlier in the cycle the outlook was pretty bleak for Johnson, who had managed to maintain a fairly low profile across the state even while he frequently made waves as a reform minded conservative in Washington. When polled, significant pluralities of Wisconsin voters over the past few years have struggled to even say they have an opinion of Johnson. Two other Wisconsin Republicans, Walker and now-House Speaker Paul Ryan have consumed much of the local GOP’s attention and the media’s coverage with high profile state political battles and the 2012 pick of Ryan as the GOP VP nominee as well as his more recent elevation to the Speaker’s chair.
Feingold used the downtime to give Wisconsin voters a break, disappearing – literally – by taking a U.S. State Department post that sent him to Africa, and taking up teaching at California’s Stanford University Law School. He also taught a class at Milwaukee’s Marquette University Law School, taught some at a small college in Appleton, Wisconsin and started a political action committee, Progressives United, that kept his old campaign machine employed.
Conventional wisdom has been upended in the final couple of months, however, as polls consistently show Johnson and Feingold within the margin of error. Republicans and aligned groups showed some signs of potentially quitting the race, but recent polling as brought them back to the game. While most polls show Johnson down slightly, but well within the margin, at least one recent poll put him 5 points ahead of Feingold. The one poll that has given Feingold a double-digit lead is routinely discarded by Wisconsin politicos because it is notoriously unreliable.
Like Evan Bayh in Indiana, Feingold offered Democrats a known quantity headed into an election year that should have been a GOP sweep. Both are former senators, both have proven fundraising ability and both enjoyed generally good rapport with their state’s voters prior to leaving office. But both have extraordinary amounts of baggage.
Feingold’s declaration that he was the deciding vote in passing ObamaCare isn’t exactly a net positive for him right now. Johnson’s victory in 2010 came largely because of voter frustration with the passage of the Affordable Care Act. A new spate of news stories showing double-digit health insurance premium hikes in Wisconsin and elsewhere, and the departure of several large insurance companies from the marketplace are reminding voters of why they fired Feingold. No attempt to whitewash the new information will erase the fact that consumers are paying more for health insurance now than before ObamaCare, and that their health care plans have been substantially altered, if not outright cancelled.
In the race to raise cash, Feingold has beaten Johnson, $11 million to $7.9 million according to a survey of FEC reports by the left-wing Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WISPIRG). But the group also found that Feingold has raised 75.65% of his funds from outside of Wisconsin; Johnson has raised half of his cash in Wisconsin. Feingold promised in 1992, when he first ran for Senate, that he would raise the majority of his campaign funds from inside of Wisconsin. The fact that he has raised fewer dollars in Wisconsin than Johnson, both in real terms and percentage terms, shows his comeback is fueled more by national Democrats than by Wisconsin voters looking to re-elect a beloved favored son.
Here’s the WISPIRG fundraising comparison:
Ironically, one of Feingold’s pet issues while in the Senate was campaign finance reform, and the infamous McCain-Feingold campaign finance law bears his name and fingerprints. While fighting for that bill, Feingold was fined thousands of dollars by the FEC for failing to report over $50,000 in campaign contributions during his 1998 re-election effort.
Evidence that the race is tighter than the Feingold campaign would like it to be came on Tuesday, when Feingold blasted Johnson for supporting a faith-based program that helps unemployed adults in Milwaukee’s inner city transition into the workforce. “It’s not enough to pick people up in a van and send them away a couple hours and have them come back exhausted at the end of the day,” Feingold said of the program.
It was an unforced error.
Another story that could dog Feingold is a new revelation that he charged high school students, a youth camp and a library all in Wisconsin over a thousand dollars each to deliver brief remarks. The speaking fees, which were paid after Feingold left the Senate, came to light when the Washington Free Beacon found Feingold’s ethics disclosure forms from his time at the State Department. The publication pointed out that Feingold was very clear in 2002 about what he wanted from a post-Senate life: “I don’t know what I’d do, but there are so many books to read, so many golf courses to play, so many dollars to make so I can pay the bills.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren has gone all-in backing Feingold, appearing at events in Wisconsin and regularly sending out e-mails via Feingold’s campaign e-mail list.
Just who wins the Wisconsin Senate race will likely depend in part on how well Donald Trump does in the state. Trump has polled well in northern and northeastern Wisconsin, places Johnson needs to do well in, but his numbers are dismal in heavily GOP southeast Wisconsin. But voters there, informed by conservative talk radio, are likely to turn out for Johnson regardless of their distaste for Trump. Johnson will likely outperform Trump, but if Trump loses in a landslide, that might not be enough. With 13 days to go, the Wisconsin Senate race is still winnable by either side.