Ready for a rematch: Feingold v. Johnson

Can Russ Feingold win his Senate seat back?
Ready for a rematch: Feingold v. Johnson

Russ Feingold is getting reacquainted with Wisconsin voters.

During his eighteen years in the U.S. Senate, he held listening sessions in each of the state’s seventy-two counties. Now he’s back on the road, posting photos on social media from visits to diners and parks around the state, in what represents the start of a bid to win back the seat he lost in 2010 to Ron Johnson.

The Middleton-based Democrat’s efforts to win over a state that rejected him for Johnson started shortly after he left his post with the U.S. State Department. Feingold spent two years serving as a special envoy to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, working to keep the peace in a region riddled with violence following a civil war. Until now, he has resisted running for office again, though some Democrats unsuccessfully tried to draft him to take on Gov. Scott Walker in the 2012 recall and again last year.
Feingold has said publicly he would not have won those elections, and he’s probably right. But this time is different.

Political observers–both Democrat and Republican–peg Johnson as the senator most in danger of losing. And 2016 is a presidential election year, which brings out more voters who traditionally choose Democratic candidates. Add to that, Johnson has some ground to make up in terms of making an impression on voters, despite the fact that he is closing in on the end of a six-year term.

Last year, when the Marquette Law School poll asked voters whether they had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Johnson, forty percent said they had not heard enough to register an opinion. (The poll was long before he and forty-six other GOP senators caught heat for signing an open letter to the leaders of Iran warning that any nuclear deal struck with the president might not outlast his term in office).

A more recent poll from Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling, taken in March, had Feingold with a nine-point lead over Johnson and found that just under one-third of registered voters approve of Johnson’s job performance.

Feingold’s attempt at a comeback won’t do much to alleviate concerns that Wisconsin’s Democratic Party is suffering from a weak bench, but it is clear the campaign is on even if he hasn’t announced his candidacy. As early as February, the National Republican Senatorial Committee issued a press release attacking his vote in favor of the $830 billion economic stimulus President Barack Obama signed into law in 2009.

Johnson spent more than $8 million of his own fortune in 2010 and benefited from a flood of anti-Feingold ads run by national third-party groups. Feingold, the architect of campaign finance reform that was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case, resisted those kinds of efforts on his behalf last time.

But the outcome also hinges on the contrast between these two very different candidates. In a year that has so far been full of noise about a Walker campaign for the White House, this matchup could end up creating just as much excitement in Wisconsin come 2016.