You know Democrats are in danger of losing control of Congress when Russell Feingold is fighting for survival.
Wisconsin voters have chosen Democrats in the last six Presidential contests, including Barack Obama by 14 percentage points in 2008, and has elected only Democratic U.S. senators since 1992. Yet the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in August called Feingold's Senate race a toss-up, one of 13 too-close-to-call Senate contests. One reason he's struggling: His support last year for the economic-stimulus package that the Congressional Budget Office now says will cost $814 billion.
The White House claims the stimulus measure has created or saved some 63,000 Wisconsin jobs, in part by funding an $810 million high-speed rail line linking Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin's two largest cities. The rail proposal, one of 13 awarded a total of $8 billion in stimulus grants this year, is among the initiatives pushed by Obama that Feingold is having to defend.
Democrats view high-speed rail as the next-generation interstate highway system. Ron Johnson, 55, a plastics executive who is Feingold's likely opponent on Nov. 2, calls it a waste of taxpayer money. Johnson, who is seeking office for the first time and still must face a Sept. 14 primary, would instead shore up existing infrastructure. "Wisconsin taxpayers will be on the hook for about $10 million per year for a costly train that few will ride," he says.
In an Aug. 17 interview amid campaign visits that included a dimly lit tavern and a tattoo parlor in South Milwaukee, Feingold said he'd "had tough races before." With the economy the way it is, "people are going to scrutinize" the contest, he said. Unemployment, at 7.8 percent, is lower than the July national average of 9.5 percent, yet the state has pockets of economic stress, such as in the south, where a General Motors assembly plant closed in 2008.
Feingold presents Johnson as outside the mainstream because he has ties to the Tea Party. Johnson says the relationship is minimal, though he welcomes its support. "The people I see at those rallies are good, honest, hard-working, taxpaying, patriotic Americans that absolutely share my concern for the direction of this country," he says.
Along with Senator John McCain of Arizona, Feingold is considered a father of campaign finance reform. Through June 30, he had raised $12.6 million, compared with $2 million for Johnson, who says he's ready to match Feingold's money out of his own pocket. "I'm all in on this thing, and I'm committed to get our message out," he says.
Johnson is a managing partner of Oshkosh-based Pacur, which sells medical and pharmaceutical packaging and other plastic products. He lists his personal worth between $10 million and $38 million on a financial disclosure report.
A Rasmussen Reports survey showed the two in a statistical tie as of Aug. 24. Lately, Feingold has benefited from Johnson's missteps. The Republican told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that "sunspot activity" is more likely the cause of global warming than carbon dioxide. In an interview, Johnson said he should've been more precise. "The point I was making," he said, "is I do not believe man-made global warming is settled science by any means."
Johnson is also attacking Feingold for his support of Obama's health-care overhaul, which Johnson says he would vote to repeal. But it's the rail line that is drawing voter attention. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in a July appearance in Wisconsin, said: "There's no stopping it." Unless Republicans hold enough power next year to halt the line in its tracks.
The bottom line: Wisconsin Democratic Senator Feingold is in a tough fight because of his support for Obama's initiatives, including a high-speed rail line.