Rojo On The Rebound
Ron Johnson is fired up and rising in the polls. Can he beat Feingold?
Since November of last year there have been 29 different polls surveying Wisconsin voters on the race between incumbent Republican U.S. Senator Ron Johnson and Democratic challenger Russ Feingold. In all but one poll — that’s 28 of 29 polls — Feingold was running ahead.
That’s probably why crack poll analyst Nate Silver and his fivethirtyeight.com website give Feingold a nine point edge — 53 percent to 44 percent — in the race and predict Feingold has a 95 percent of winning and Johnson almost no chance — just five percent — of winning.
And yet… Somehow the race feels like it has changed in recent weeks, as money seems to be pouring back into the state supporting pro-Johnson ads, and the senator has done very well, arguably holding his own, in his two debates against Feingold on Friday and Tuesday nights. The most recent Marquette University Law School poll, taken before the debates, showed Feingold with just a two percent lead, 48 percent to 46 percent.
This, after all, is a senator who after nearly five years in office, seemed all but invisible to the electorate. By August 2015, the Marquette University Law School poll had surveyed voters nine times on Johnson, and the percentage that approved of him had averaged just 32 percent, compared to 28 percent who were negative and 40 percent who had no opinion. Those are stunningly bad numbers. I can’t recall any statewide incumbent of whom so many people had no opinion.
Feingold, by contrast, was far better known by voters. In his 18 years as U.S. Senator — from 1992 to 2010 — he had been relentless about meeting with constituents, holding listening sessions in all 72 counties every year: That’s 432 sessions per term, and 1,296 sessions during his entire tenure as senator.
Unlike Feingold, Johnson didn’t seem to like meeting with the public all that well. Johnson “does a lecture, he does a PowerPoint about the deficit,” Feingold jabbed, “but he doesn’t open himself to hearing about the daily realities that Wisconsin middle-class families and workers face.” Johnson, in fact, suggested it wouldn’t be the end of the world if he lost his reelection, which might have buttressed the non-politician image he tries to project, but had to leave Republicans wondering how serious he was about the campaign.
In a state whose GOP voters rejected Donald Trump, Johnson remarkably did little to distance himself from his party’s controversial presidential candidate. Johnson was the only one of the nine or so Republican Senate incumbents in any danger of defeat who agreed to speak at the Republican convention, stunning some GOP insiders.
One day after Johnson spoke at the convention, a group affiliated with the conservative Koch brothers, Freedom Partners Action Fund, pulled more than $2 million in ad time it had scheduled to spend on Johnson’s behalf. It was a sign that his race looked lost.
Yet Johnson seemed to dig in harder rather than losing hope, his poll numbers have risen and the dark money from conservative groups is now pouring back into the state to support him. It’s become a very negative race with both sides hammering each other with attack ads, and the result has helped bring Feingold down to Johnson’s level of unpopularity. When he entered the race the MU poll showed 44 percent of state residents had a favorable view of Feingold and 29 percent had a negative view. But the latest polls shows Feingold is viewed favorably by 45 percent, unfavorably by 40 percent, not much different than Johnson’s 43 percent favorable, 37 percent unfavorable.
Feingold has always been an excellent debater, with an ability to a project a sunny, positive vibe even as he attacks his opponent. But that hasn’t worked as well for him in the recent debates. Feingold has aged, all the boyish charm that first got him elected in 1992 is long gone, and his facial expressions in the split screen projected angst as Johnson spoke.
On the issues, Feingold was the clear winner on Friday and gained a tie or better in the Tuesday debate. But TV is mostly about the visuals and Johnson is taller and more imposing than Feingold, and very hard to rattle: his imperturbable calmness and silver-haired stateliness generally give him more gravitas than Feingold.
But Johnson was more aggressive in the second debate, moderated by Mike Gousha, and the more wide-open format may have helped the senator as well. The incumbent gave as good as he got, and the clash made it harder for Feingold, who was barely able to develop his “listen to the people” theme. On many issues — second amendment rights, supreme court appointments, Obamacare, dealing with ISIS, opioid addictions — both were strong. Feingold again scored on minimum wage, paid medical leave and student debt, but Johnson was much stronger making Feingold seemed like stale goods, a career politician who had moved away from his youthful idealism.
Johnson flashed lots of passion and even broke a sweat, while still maintaining that impressive calmness.The message to Feingold — and to the voters — was that the senator means to make this a fight to the finish. The odds are still against him, and the continuing meltdown of Trump from atop the ticket doesn’t help. But I wouldn’t count out Ron Johnson just yet.