It wasn’t too long ago that Senator Ron Johnson’s reelection chances appeared to be a lost cause. It had nothing to do with Johnson, who was a well-liked and extremely productive member of the Senate, and everything to do with the ebbs and flows of politics.
The former businessman was swept into the Senate on a Republican wave, the result of a voter backlash against Democrat over-reach as exemplified by Obamacare. It was assumed that Johnson wouldn’t have much of a chance in a more typical year in left-leaning Wisconsin, especially in a rematch against Russ Feingold, who remains better known in the state. Until very recently, that assumption seemed to be coming true. Feingold, carried by his name recognition and millions of dollars in campaign cash, led Johnson by double digits for most of the race.
But then something funny happened. Despite well-heeled backers largely investing in other races, Johnson kept going, building an impressive ground game that prioritized getting into communities and meeting would-be voters. The results have been astounding. A new Marquette University Law School poll finds that Johnson is just two points behind Feingold, the latest in a slew of surveys showing that the race is tightening.
In some ways this follows a broader trend in this election cycle.
“In recent elections, more and more voters have been choosing candidates from the same party for president and Senate,” Harry Enten writes for FiveThirtyEight.
This year, however, appears to be different. Despite Clinton’s steady rise in the polls after the first presidential debate, Democrats’ chances to taking the Senate have actually fallen. Wisconsin, Enten writes, is the perfect example of this odd trend:
Perhaps most worrisome for Democrats is what’s going on in Wisconsin. Republican Sen. Ron Johnson’s re-election campaign looked all but dead. The powerful Koch brothers pulled money out of the state as Democrat Russ Feingold consistently led in the polls. But two new polls this week showed Johnson trailing by just 2 or 3 percentage points, and a third gave Johnson a lead, despite Clinton’s advantage in the state seeming to grow.
But it’s the size of Sen. Johnson’s comeback that makes his roaring comeback so amazing. If you know anything about Johnson, or Russ Feingold for that matter, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. National Review’s Jake Curtis gives a nice synopsis:
It is essential that the voters of Wisconsin see the candidates for who they really are. Johnson is a true citizen legislator. He had never held public office before his 2010 election to the Senate. To that point, he’d lived a relatively simple life in Oshkosh, Wisc., running his company, raising his family, and contributing to his community. Following passage of the Affordable Care Act, he embarked on a personal crusade, talking to Tea Party groups about the life-saving care one of his daughters received and how things could have been different with a government-controlled health-care system. In one of his more memorable lines, he proclaimed, “Now that they’ve passed Obamacare, our freedom is on life support!”
Inspired, he personally poured millions of dollars into a 2010 campaign to unseat Feingold. Over the last six years, one of the main criticisms of Johnson has been that he doesn’t focus enough on the political side of the job, because he’s too busy holding hearings and diving into policy.
That’s a sharp contrast to how Feingold has spent his last six years. Despite being a career politician, who has spent precious little time in the private sector attempting to understand the businesses he seeks to tax and regulate, he has accomplished very little.
His singular claim to fame is a bipartisan campaign-finance reform bill colloquially known as McCain-Feingold. Perhaps it would be a noteworthy achievement, except that upon his ouster from the Senate he immediately set up a Political Action Committee called Progressives United that was designed to collect and funnel the “soft money” he once wanted to eradicate. Even worse, the PAC appears to be little more than a slush fund designed to line his own pockets while also serving a personal fundraising network.
As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, Progressives United PAC has given a measly 5 percent of its collected funds to federal candidates. On the other hand, the PAC spent half of the $7.1 million in tallied in donations to raise more money for itself. Another sizable chunk was spent on salaries for former Feingold staffers or consulting fees for Feingold himself.
This is not just outsider versus insider or citizen legislator versus career politician. This race, as Jake Curtis writes, is to herald a return to “a different, more principled generation of politicians.” In other words, elect someone who studies the issues, works hard for his constituents, wants to achieve positive change and then wants to get out of town, not someone who sees politics as a way to make a good living for themselves and their friends.
If the polls are any indication, more and more people are ready to make that choice