Wisconsin takes center stage in battle for Senate majority

Wisconsin takes center stage in battle for Senate majority
© Greg Nash

Democrats got their man in Wisconsin when Russ Feingold announced this week that he’d seek a rematch against 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 (R-Wis.) in a bid to reclaim the Senate seat he lost in 2010.

Feingold remains beloved by liberals, and the cascade of endorsements from the left came quickly.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee immediately announced it would back Feingold in the race. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) followed with a fundraising email on his behalf, and the progressive groups that have agitated for primary battles against some establishment Democrats early in the cycle announced they were fully on board.

Democrats were staring at a thin bench in Wisconsin if Feingold had passed on the race.

And without beating Johnson, Democrats would face an even taller order in gaining the five seats they need to retake a Senate majority next year.

With Feingold, they landed a candidate who brings experience and a strong name identification to the campaign trail.

“He’s salvation for Democrats in this race, a godsend for them,” said Brandon Scholz, a Republican lobbyist in the state.

Now, the pressure is on Feingold to deliver a victory for Democrats.

Along with deep-blue Illinois, Wisconsin represents perhaps the best opportunity for Democrats to flip a seat in a year when Republicans are defending 24 seats in total.

“We’re one of three or four toss-ups that Democrats absolutely have to win for the Senate to be in play,” said Charles Franklin, the polling director at Marquette University Law School. “If they’re not winning here, it will suggest that they’re also not winning in those other states that they have to pick up.”

Feingold could benefit from presidential coattails in a state that hasn’t voted for the Republican candidate since 1988. A Republican senator hasn’t won an election in the state during a presidential year since 1980.

In addition, voter turnout in Wisconsin during a presidential year is typically 50 percent higher than it is in midterm years. The higher turnout brings out a more liberal electorate, political watchers in the state say.

“A Democrat running in Wisconsin in presidential year always has the advantage,” said Thad Nation, a Democratic strategist in the state. “There’s some very simple math in Wisconsin that people from both parties accept: when more people show up, Democrats win.”

Still, Feingold will have to earn it.

The string of presidential victories in the state looks nice for Democrats on paper, but Wisconsin is still very much a battleground state. In 2000, Al Gore carried it by only about 6,000 votes, and in 2004, John Kerry squeaked out a victory by about 13,000 votes.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) has built a considerable campaign apparatus during his three successful elections in the state over a four-year period. Walker’s elections have driven scores of new Republicans to the polls, and he could be at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016.

And Feingold’s loss in 2010 is still fresh on the minds of many in the state. Johnson defeated Feingold by 5 percentage points in a year that saw huge gains for Republicans across the board. 

That year, Feingold struggled to find a message that connected with voters. 

He couldn’t run on his signature legislative achievement, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which was at the time unraveling in the courts. Instead, Feingold sought to frame himself as an Independent who wasn’t beholden to politics-as-usual on Capitol Hill at a time when frustration with Washington was high. 

Feingold’s most memorable campaign ad from that cycle showed him eating lunch alone in the Senate cafeteria, making the point that his maverick ways had marked him as an outsider among the political elite.

But voters weren’t buying the notion that their three-term senator was a Washington outsider, and instead sent Johnson, a businessman who had never before run for political office, to the Senate.

This time around, Feingold is still touting his Independent bona fides, but he’s also signaled he intends to run as a populist and will seek to ride the wave of anti-bank sentiment that has energized progressive groups and created a superstar out of Warren.

In his announcement video, Feingold said he was pushed to run by conversations he had with Wisconsinites, who he said are concerned that the “multimillionaires, billionaires and big corporations are calling all of the shots.”

Democrats in the state say that’s a winning strategy.

“Wisconsin has a long history of rewarding that kind of populist message, we seem to always have a senator that falls somewhere along that spectrum,” said Nation. “I think voters will trust that message coming from Russ. He’s a known entity and it’s an agenda he’s pushed before.”

The money game will be another important factor in the race.

Feingold has frustrated liberals in the past by running on the principles of his campaign finance reform law and turning away financial help from national Democrats and outside groups.

In 2010, it finally caught up with him, as Johnson poured millions of his own dollars into the race.

Political watchers in the state have no idea how Feingold will deal with the issue this time around. There’s been an explosion of campaign spending since Feingold last ran for office, but he opens himself up to charges of hypocrisy if he accepts outside help.

Republicans are already looking to make an issue of it.

“Well that didn’t take long,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Andrea Bozek wrote in an email to reporters. “The same day partisan career politician Russ Feingold announced his Senate run, the Democratic Senate super PAC sent out an email fundraising off of Feingold’s announcement! Will the champion of campaign finance reform denounce the super PAC’s efforts?”

But as much pressure as there will be on Feingold to come through for Democrats, the spotlight on Johnson will be equally glaring.

Democrats call him the “accidental senator,” believing the political neophyte lucked into office by running in a wave election year for the GOP.

Johnson will have to prove to Republicans that he understands he won’t benefit in 2016 from the confluence of events that swept him into office in 2010, and that he can run a strong reelection campaign that effectively communicates the legislative record he’ll have to defend.

“He has a strong record as a fiscal hawk who has sought to reduce government spending,” said Scholz. “He did everything he could to take on ObamaCare, and now with his role on the Homeland Security Committee, he’ll have a big voice on immigration, which is going to be big going into 2016. He’s teed up nicely to take his record to voters.”

Republicans are eager for the fight and are tired of talk that Democrats have the advantage.

Scholz argued that Feingold will also have to overcome historical precedent in the race.

“In 1934, former Sen. Peter Gerry (D-RI) defeated the man who defeated him six years earlier,” Scholz said. “It hasn’t been done since.”