Is Wisconsin Still Feingold Country? Dem Sen Trails Heading Into November

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In the race for the Senate in 2010, one Democratic seat has emerged as a surprise danger spot for Democrats: The Wisconsin seat held by three-term Sen. Russ Feingold, a major voice among Washington progressives.

Feingold won his first term with 53% of the vote in 1992, defeating incumbent two-term Republican Sen. Bob Kasten. He was then re-elected with a bare 51% in 1998, then expanded that margin to 55% in 2004. But now he’s trailing in the polls against Republican businessman Ron Johnson — the TPM Poll Average gives Johnson a healthy lead of 51.6%-44.8%. In addition, Public Policy Polling (D) will have another survey out today, showing Feingold down by double-digits as a result of a “massive” enthusiasm gap between Republican and Democratic voters.

Thomas Holbrook, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, explained to us that Wisconsin is fundamentally a swing state — and the difficult national environment for Democrats is turning up here. “Well, I think part of it is that he’s got a ‘D’ next to his name,” said Holbrook. “He happens to be a Democratic incumbent running in a year that’s going to be tough for Democrats.”With that said, Holbrook also made it clear that Feingold could potentially win. Holbrook explained that as of now, the race still has not heated up — and people still don’t really know Johnson: “Right now people don’t know much about him, other than he’s the guy running against Feingold.” As such, Feingold and his supporters have the task of defining Johnson negatively in the voters’ minds.

“It’s not clear to me that Feingold does negative very well,” said Holbrook. “It’s sort of out of step with his overall approach to politics. I remember over the summer seeing an ad, and I don’t even remember what the substance was other than it was negative, and I just remember thinking it didn’t fit well with Feingold himself.”

A Democratic source in Wisconsin told us that internal polling before last Tuesday’s primary showed Feingold ahead, by 48%-41% among all voters and 47%-43% among those definite to vote, in contrast to the publicly released polls. Furthermore, the source said that Feingold’s familiarity with the state — he visits all 72 counties each year — should provide him enough good will to make it a close race. In an additional sign of enthusiasm among the Democratic base, the source said that Feingold raised $435,000 online in 24 hours after last week’s Republican primary that nominated Johnson.

So far, the state Dems have tried to attack Johnson as a hypocrite for saying he opposes government intervention in business, saying that he received government-supported business loans in the 1980s. Another story is more recent — that he inquired about receiving funds from the stimulus, which he now opposes, for the renovation of an opera house for which he is president of the board.

Johnson has also had his own missteps, such as saying he would sell his BP stock — but only when the market favored doing so. He has also falsely stated that global warming is caused purely by solar activity, and that increased carbon emissions are good for trees. But for now, it seems, those gaffes haven’t had much of an impact with voters — if indeed, they are paying much attention at all yet.

FEC filings through late August show that Johnson spent $4.55 million, almost all of it from his own self-financing. Feingold’s filings show that he has spent $6.2 million for the whole cycle, although this also includes other spending for the entire six-year period since 2004.

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