Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin businessman who had never run for office, surprised the political world in 2010 when he defeated incumbent Democrat Russ Feingold in the general election. Johnson rose on the popularity of emotional speeches at Tea Party events in the state and easily won the GOP primary in 2010. Largely self-funding his campaign, he defeated Feingold whose name adorned the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform measure.
The political terrain is considerably different this year. First, it is a presidential election year. Second is Wisconsin’s leftward tilt and Johnson has proven to be a conservative senator, although not of late. Third, Russ Feingold is back for a rematch and although he eschewed Party funding of advertisements in 2010, he will have to- at the risk of being labeled a hypocrite- accept it this time around. Feingold had been licking his wounds lately as a special State Department envoy to Africa.
The fact Feingold is running should not come as a huge surprise. After losing in 2010, he still had a sizable campaign fund reserve of cash which he never disbanded. Some early observers wondered if he was positioning himself for a 2016 run. Those suspicions were confirmed when he announced his candidacy. His presence cleared the primary field as there was talk that Gwen Moore or Mary Burke would run. Thus, both primaries were uncontested.
And the Democratic Party has made winning this race a priority in their efforts to regain control of the Senate. Since then, scores of endorsements from a who’s who of Leftist organizations and labor unions have poured into Feingold’s office. Obama and Biden and the DSCC have followed suit. On the GOP side, the Club for Growth and Chamber of Commerce- two groups usually at odds with another- have endorsed Johnson with more likely to follow.
With the field largely set from the beginning, the big elephant in the room is Donald Trump. He lost the Wisconsin primary to Ted Cruz after the latter received unqualified support from Governor Scott Walker, himself a presidential candidate at one time. Lest we forget, Walker’s tenure as Governor as well as the state itself was attacked by Trump on the debate stage at one time. One cannot see Walker lending great support to Trump, but Johnson may be a different story. And as we saw in the GOP presidential primary, Walker’s word is worth something among Wisconsin Republicans.
As for Johnson, he has neither distanced himself from nor endorsed Trump thus far. He has acknowledged that Trump is tapping into voter frustration with Washington DC. In fact, some polls show Trump performing very well in the northwestern section of the state. In 2010, Feingold carried three counties in that area by large margins. In fact, other than a few other rural counties, the base of Feingold’s electoral support was in Milwaukee and Dane counties. Elsewhere, Johnson was close in some suburban counties in the southwest section of the state and swept the Milwaukee suburbs.
One of the key constituencies in Wisconsin is young voters, especially college students. Despite Clinton’s attempted inroads, these are Bernie Sanders people. And Sanders absolutely ate Clinton up in Wisconsin winning all but Milwaukee county. Conversely, the problem for Trump is that he carried his fair share of counties, but Cruz took the all-important population centers and their suburbs. All in all, Trump’s weaknesses in Wisconsin are cancelled out by Clinton’s weaknesses.
But we need to be realistic. Wisconsin has not given a Republican their electoral votes since Ronald Reagan in 1984. Since 2000, Democrats have won the state by an average margin of 5.25 points. They are the Pennsylvania of the upper Midwest- always mentioned, but never delivered. As it stands now, based on eleven polls out of Wisconsin dating back to October 2015, Trump trails Clinton by 10 points- considerably outside and worse than the average since 2000.
After a February poll showing Trump being disliked by two-thirds of voters in the state, the state assembly majority leader Jim Steineke sounded the alarm that his candidacy could kill the chances of Johnson and other candidates down ballot. The following month, Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner said: “All the polls show Trump losing to Hillary Clinton, and that is perhaps going to cost us the Senate, including Sen. Johnson’s seat…” Although the warnings were heeded in Wisconsin, unfortunately that did not occur elsewhere.
Johnson was recently criticized for comparing the GOP presidential nomination battle to United Airlines flight 93 which went down in a field in Pennsylvania on 9/11. He was using perhaps not so great a metaphor, but no less true.
Of course, the Democrats are trying to tie Trump to Johnson. For his part, Johnson has stated he will support whoever the GOP candidate is, but was preferring one with integrity, class, intelligence and the courage to unite the country. That appeared to be a slight against Trump since Trump lacks those attributes.
In his campaign kickoff, Johnson stressed the economy, stagnant wages and income inequality which has grown under Obama. He accuses Feingold of being a career politician beholden to big government and making it bigger.
In 12 polls in the Senate race, Johnson trails Feingold by an average of 8.3 points. In essence, the Johnson campaign realized this was going to be a difficult effort no matter who the Republican candidate at the top of the ticket was going to be given Wisconsin’s electoral history. In his favor he should have Scott Walker in his corner who has three times fought back electoral attacks from Leftists in Wisconsin.
This race should grow closer as Election Day nears in November, but the fact remains that Ron Johnson is one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents in the Senate. How he negotiates the Trump candidacy could make all the difference. When McConnell vaguely warned about running from the top of the ticket, he probably had Johnson in mind. Expect this to become an interesting, costly and potentially ugly race as it progresses. With Trump eyeing states in the Upper Midwest to alter the electoral map, Wisconsin may yet again become Ground Zero. One hopes that Johnson is not caught in the crossfire. Maybe Ted Cruz would not have won Wisconsin in a general election, but Johnson’s chances of reelection certainly would he higher today.