Senate Democratic leaders expect Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) to run for re-election in 2012, a development that would spare them from having to defend another costly open seat.
Kohl has cruised to victory in recent elections — he won 67 percent of the vote in 2006 — but Republican Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonWisconsin senators ask outsiders not to exploit parade attack 'for their own political purposes' It's time to bury ZombieCare once and for all Marjorie Taylor Greene introduces bill to award Congressional Gold Medal to Rittenhouse MORE’s surprise victory over former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) in 2010 has changed the political calculus in Wisconsin.
Kohl has been coy about his intentions for 2012.
Asked by a reporter last week whether he planned to run for re-election, Kohl dismissed the question.
“Are you a reporter?” he asked in response. When informed that his interlocutor was indeed a reporter, Kohl simply walked away.
On another occasion outside the Senate chamber last week, when asked about his re-election plans, Kohl turned away and ignored the question.
But Democratic leaders feel confident he will run again and think he’s well positioned to defend the seat.
“We’re pretty confident he’s going to do it,” said a Senate Democratic leadership aide. “If he does it, he’ll win. We’ll support him 100 percent.”
Kohl declined to reveal his plans in a recent statement.
“Right now, I’m focused on working hard to represent the people of Wisconsin – a job that I love and feel a deep responsibility to do well,” he said. “I believe that the people of Wisconsin prefer that I work rather than campaign, but rest assured that when it’s time to make my plans for 2012, I will share them.”
Political strategists in Washington are trying to grasp how the fierce controversy over Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s bid to strip public unions of collective bargaining rights will affect the 2012 landscape.
Anson Kaye, who served as a senior policy adviser and communications director for Jim Doyle, the former Democratic governor, predicted voters will embrace Kohl as a pragmatic choice after the recent chaos in Madison.
“He is tremendously well respected, and he is someone who is perceived as adult in the room in any room he walks into,” said Kaye. “If you look at the spectacle of Madison, people will have a real hunger for someone who will lower the voices and solve the problems in a way not seeing in the back forth.”
A spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee did not return a request for comment on Friday afternoon. A spokesman for the Republican Party of Wisconsin did not reply to several requests for comment. Four Democrats and independent Sen. Joe Lieberman have already announced their retirement from the Senate, as have three Republicans.
Kohl has kept a low profile in the fight between Walker and the public employees’ union.
He recently issued a careful statement urging the governor and Republican state lawmakers to drop their efforts to crack down on bargaining rights.
“This is not how Democracy is supposed to work. It’s an affront to workers and families across our state, not only public employees,” he said. “This is not the way to build strength in our state or our economy – that will only happen when fairness and respect are restored to guide us.”
Kohl’s recent vote against a package of spending cuts put together by Democratic leaders, however, shows that he’s feeling pressure at home from voters concerned about government spending.
“There is not enough deficit reduction in the Democratic alternative. We need to do better,” Kohl said after voting against his party’s plan to cut $6.2 from the federal budget for the rest of fiscal 2011.
Kohl’s vote surprised a Senate GOP leadership aide who said Wisconsin’s senior senator has found himself in the same predicament of vulnerable centrists such as Sens. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillLobbying world Ex-Rep. Akin dies at 74 Republicans may regret restricting reproductive rights MORE (D-Mo.), Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterDemocrats wrangle to keep climate priorities in spending bill On The Money — Powell pivots as inflation rises Senators huddle on path forward for SALT deduction in spending bill MORE (D-Mont.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), all of whom face tough re-election fights in 2012.
One political analyst interpreted Kohl’s vote against the Democratic spending measure and subsequent statement as an effort to position himself for a potentially tough race.
“I don’t think it says he’s not running for re-election. It looks like he’s in the game,” said Jeff Mayers, president of WisPolitics.com, an online political and government news service in Madison.
Mayers said Kohl’s self-effacing, mild-mannered style has proved popular among Wisconsin’s voters. He has ranked throughout his career as on of the state’s most popular politicians.
“His rating remains pretty high, and the spread between him and his would be challengers remains pretty fair,” said Mayers.
A truly dangerous Republican challenger has yet to emerge. One possible threat is Mark Neumann, who lost to Walker in the gubernatorial primary in September.
Mayers did note that Sen. Johnson did not emerge as a viable opponent to Feingold until late in the campaign.
“At this point two years ago, people didn’t think Feingold was vulnerable,” he said.
Al Zins, a long-time friend of Kohl's who worked with him when Kohl served as chairman of the state Democratic Party in the late 70s said the senator has not confided his plans in him.
"He has an awful lot of support, it's a lot of quiet support," said Zins. "My inclination is that he's very committed to making sure that people who have difficulty receiving the support they need, receive help from the government when appropriate."