Former Sen. Russ Feingold (D) on Thursday announced he will challenge Sen. Ron JohnsonRon JohnsonThe Hill's 12:30 Report Passing US-Canada preclearance would improve security and economy Overnight Finance: Trump expected to pick Steven Mnuchin for Treasury | Budget chair up for grabs | Trump team gets deal on Carrier jobs MORE (R-Wis.) in 2016, setting up a rematch in the critical swing state of Wisconsin.
In a Web video announcing his candidacy Thursday morning, Feingold portrayed himself as an independent voice that will reach across the aisle to get things done.
“Let’s fight together for change,” Feingold says in the video. “That means helping to bring back to the Senate strong independents, bipartisanship and honesty. So today, I’m pleased to announce that I’m planning to run for the U.S. Senate in 2016, and this effort begins with listening to you.”
Democrats believe Feingold gives them their best shot at picking up the Wisconsin seat, as they try to win back the Senate majority, and party leaders quickly backed his candidacy.
No Republican has won Wisconsin in a presidential election year since 1984, and Feingold leads by 9 percentage points, according to a survey from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling.
Johnson said he wasn't surprised that he is in for a rematch.
“Russ has a long record of standing up to the special interests trying to influence our democracy and a strong reputation of working to create opportunity for all Wisconsinites,” Tester said in a statement. “As Senator, I know that Russ will always put Wisconsin first and we’re very proud to support what will be his successful campaign.”
Johnson defeated Feingold by 5 percentage points in 2010, and Republicans expressed confidence he will do so again.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee labeled Feingold a “desperate career politician” whose “ego still can’t grasp that he was soundly defeated” in 2010.
“Wisconsin families rejected Feingold’s broken promises and his liberal record once and they are going to do it again,” NRSC spokeswoman Andrea Bozek said in a statement. “Wisconsin voters know a desperate career politician when they see one and that is why they will re-elect their independent leader, Ron Johnson.”
Democrats believe they have the upper hand in the race because Johnson’s defeat of Feingold came in a midterm wave election for Republicans.
Johnson, a businessman from Oshkosh, poured millions of dollars of his own money into the 2010 race, and he has said he won’t self-fund this time around.
Feingold turned down financial help from outside groups and national Democrats in that race, sticking with his support for campaign finance reform. Political observers will be watching closely to see whether Feingold shifts his stance as he enters what is likely to be an expensive Senate race.
Johnson has been fundraising at a quick pace, bringing in $1.3 million in the first quarter of the year, his biggest quarterly haul. That sum boosted his cash on hand from $600,000 at the end of last year, to $1.5 million.
Feingold struck a populist tone in his announcement, saying he was pushed to run by conversations he had with people who are concerned that the “multimillionaires, billionaires and big corporations are calling all of the shots.”
“I’ll be hitting the road from here, travelling to communities all across the state listening closely to my fellow Wisconsinites talk about their concerns, especially when it comes to their economic well-being,” Feingold said.
The Wisconsin Democrat quickly landed the backing of the progressive group Democracy for America (DFA), which called him “one of our country's most inspiring progressive champions” and noted he was the lone senator to vote against the Patriot Act in 2001.
“Senator Russ Feingold is precisely the kind of fighter and truth-teller our country needs in the U.S. Senate,” DFA Chairman Jim Dean said in a statement.
The endorsement is crucial, as DFA and other progressive groups have shown an early willingness to mix it up with establishment-backed Democratic candidates in the primaries this cycle.
— This story was last updated at 3:30 p.m.
Jordain Carney contributed to this story.