A proposed $810 million high-speed rail line funded by federal stimulus money that would link Wisconsin’s two largest cities has become an emblem of the battle for control of the U.S. Senate.
Republicans say linking Milwaukee and Madison would waste taxpayer money, while Democrats call it an economic development project akin to the interstate highway system.
The rail proposal, part of $8 billion in economic stimulus grants awarded earlier this year to 13 rail corridors, is among the initiatives pushed by President Barack Obama that Senator Russell Feingold, a three-term Democrat with a record of an independent streak, is defending this election season.
“This is in fact building a legitimate, environmentally sound infrastructure for the future of our state,” Feingold, 57, told a group of business leaders in Madison.
Feingold is planning to face Ron Johnson, a plastics executive seeking public office for the first time, in the November election. Johnson, 55, who plans to spend some of his own multi-million-dollar wealth on the race, says the rail line is an example of excessive Washington spending.
“Wisconsin taxpayers will be on the hook for about $10 million per year for a costly train that few will ride,” he said, calling instead for shoring up existing infrastructure.
Feingold’s fight to hold his seat is a measure of the difficulty Democrats face in November. He was considered a safe incumbent earlier this year.
“Wisconsin is an evenly divided state and neither Republicans nor Democrats have a clear advantage,” said Thomas Holbrook, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “Although Feingold has a maverick image, he is a pretty liberal Democrat.”
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington moved its ranking of the Wisconsin race from leaning Democratic to toss-up, one of 13 Senate contests nationally with that designation. A Rasmussen Reports survey Aug. 24 showed a statistical tie between Feingold and Johnson, the leading Republican candidate in Wisconsin’s Sept. 14 primary.
While Feingold is selling the Democrats’ actions over the past 19 months, he’s also shown his maverick tendencies.
He was the lone Democrat to oppose a bill aimed at strengthening regulation of Wall Street, one of Obama’s top legislative initiatives, saying it wasn’t tough enough. His desire for a government-run insurance program, called the public option, complicated White House efforts to pass health-care overhaul legislation.
Opposed Bernanke, Geithner
“Under Chairman Bernanke’s watch, predatory mortgage lending flourished and ‘too big to fail’ financial giants were permitted to engage in activities that put our nation’s economy at risk,” Feingold said in a Jan. 22 statement.
“He has never been part of the Democratic establishment,” said Jeff Mayers, president of the Internet site WisPolitics.com. “He has always had his own agenda.”
He’s also an unusual fit for Wisconsin: a Jew with degrees from Harvard University and Oxford University in a heavily Catholic and Lutheran state that’s best known for its production of beer, milk and cheese.
Democrats have won the state in the past six presidential elections, including Obama’s 14-point victory in 2008. Since 1992, Wisconsin has elected only Democratic U.S. senators, although often by narrow margins.
“I’ve had tough races before,” Feingold said in an interview amid campaign visits that included a dimly lit tavern and a tattoo parlor in South Milwaukee. “With the economy the way it is, people are going to scrutinize” the race.
The state’s unemployment rate is 7.8 percent, lower than the national average of 9.5 percent in July. There are pockets of greater economic stress, such as in the southern part of the state, where a General Motors Co. assembly plant closed in 2008.
The rail line has also become a major issue in the state’s contest for governor, where Republican candidate Scott Walker has called it a “boondoggle.”
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood confronted the criticism during an appearance in Wisconsin last month.
“High-speed rail is coming to Wisconsin,” he said. “There’s no stopping it.”
Obama, during a visit to the state last week, said Feingold “is fighting on behalf of Wisconsin families.” Later, Obama helped raise money for the state Democratic Party and for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s campaign for governor. Feingold said he didn’t feel slighted.
“I’m happy to stand with the president,” he said.
Feingold has benefited from missteps by Johnson. Last week, Johnson 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.
“I could have used solar activity, as opposed to sunspot, or solar flare,” he said. “The point I was making is I do not believe man-made global warming is settled science by any means. You take a look at geologic time. We’ve had huge climate swings. In Wisconsin, this thing has been covered by glaciers.”
Johnson is following Republican attack lines used nationally, including criticizing Feingold’s support of the health-care overhaul, which he wants repealed, and last year’s stimulus bill.
“There is such a high level of uncertainty in this economy right now that it has just frozen everyone,” he said.
Feingold says Johnson is “on the side of the very elite, well-to-do people, and he wants bigger tax cuts for himself.”
Feingold also presents Johnson as outside the mainstream because he has ties to the Tea Party, a coalition of voters seeking limits on government spending, taxes and debt.
Johnson, a native of neighboring Minnesota, said his relationship with the Tea Party is minimal, although 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 said.
Feingold, who along with Senator John McCain of Arizona is considered a father of modern campaign finance reform, had raised $12.6 million through June 30, compared with $2 million for Johnson.
Johnson said he’s ready to match Feingold’s fundraising with his own money if needed. “I’m all in on this thing and I’m committed to get our message out,” he said.
Johnson is a managing partner of Pacur LLC, which sells medical and pharmaceutical packing and other plastics products from its headquarters in Oshkosh. He entered the business with the assistance of his father-in-law, Howard Curler, who was a cheese and meat packaging pioneer.
The Republican candidate listed personal assets valued between $10 million and $38 million on a financial disclosure report.
Lonnie Mages of Milwaukee, who considers herself an independent voter, said she has yet to decide on the race.
“There’s so much that has gone on and people are more cautious and interested in what the candidates are saying this time,” said Mages, 70, a professional welder. “I want to hear more from all the candidates.”