Bruce Murphy
Murphys Law

Rojo On The Rebound

Ron Johnson is fired up and rising in the polls. Can he beat Feingold?

By - Oct 20th, 2016 10:47 am
Russ Feingold and Senator Ron Johnson.

Russ Feingold and Senator Ron Johnson.

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 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.

If Johnson were to pull out a victory, it would be a remarkable turnaround, to say the least.

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.

That said, Feingold was the superior debater in their Friday contest. It’s not just that he offered more specifics and more effective attacks, but he had an over-arching theme that repeatedly boxed in Johnson: on issue after issue Feingold would note his meetings with constituents, that he listens to voters, and they want an increase in the minimum wage, paid medical leave and help with student loan debt, and that Johnson, by contrast only listens to big corporations and the wealthy. Johnson was slow figuring out how to combat this, and fell back on Feingold being the career politician who will simply increase the size of government. Rhetorically speaking, Feingold dominated.

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.

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

17 thoughts on “Murphys Law: Rojo On The Rebound”

  1. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    Nah. Watch Charlie Franklin get in line with the other polls that have Feingold up 6-8 points. Johnson and the Kochs are trying to play a confidence game on voters implying this seat is “in play”, just like Drumpf has tried to do with his visits to Wisconsin.

    The Dem groups are staying out, and there’s a reason why. I’d set the betting line with Feingold as a 5.5 point favorite for Nov 8.

  2. WashCoRepub says:

    Wisconsinites are waking up to the fact that Johnson and his effective staff actually does the hard, on-the-ground work of ‘constituent services.’ Meaning returns calls and emails, looks into issues, etc. This is on top of the committee work the Senator does. Such a sharp contrast with Feingold’s do-little performance during his (long) term.

  3. Vincent Hanna says:

    What evidence do you have that proves Johnson actively engages with his constituents while Feingold ignored them? Feingold was infamous for visiting every single county in the state. Has RoJo done that?

  4. Duane Snyder says:

    Repugs like to peddle the nonsense that Feingold didn’t do anything while in office. I guess in their minds if you are against free trade, financial deregulation, money in politics, endless wars, and a national surveilance state you really aren’t doing your job. There aren’t very many US Senators who demonstrated the courage that Russ had when he voted against things like the Patriot Act, Gramm Leach Bliley, NAFTA, and the Iraq war. Ron Johnson is a fraud serving the interests of the oligarchs rather than working people and I hope the people of WI have come to recognize that.

  5. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    Well it’s good to know WashCo Repub just outed himself as a paid GOP poster, because the next unscripted appearance Rojo has with constituents will be his first. That’s a good thing, kid, because I thought you were just being a moron and not a hack.

    By comparison, Russ has been in every county and takes on all issues and questions. You can’t fake those kinds of things, nor can you fale mastery of issues amd nuance. People know this, and it’s why RUSS wins by quite a bit more than that ad-generating Marquette Poll tried to pull

  6. Vincent Hanna says:

    Also I love how returning phone calls and looking into issues is called hard work for a U.S. Senator with a paid staff. Any chance WashCoRepub is actually parodying a conservative?

  7. Orville says:

    I remember 4 years ago almost to the day, it was weeks before the 2012 Presidential Election and CRG Network was putting on a rally at the Waukesha Expo Center which we billed “The We Did Build It Rally”

    We had asked Sen. Johnson tp put on his Power Point presentation on the budget and he agreed to appear.

    On the day before our rally, Harry Reid called the Senate into some type of special session late on a Friday night. I remember waking up at about 2:00 in the morning and turning on C-Span and the U.S. Senate was in session live.

    I remember thinking that Sen. Johnson would never be able to attend and he would have a good excuse to bow out, yet later that afternoon who walks into the door without some large entourage? Yes, it was Sen. Ron Johnson and he actually drove himself their.

    That showed me a very large level of commitment on his part that he is interested in doing his job and informing the public about what is going on in D.C.

    Tat among other things is why I will be voting for Ron Johnson.

  8. Vincent Hanna says:

    So one time 4 years ago he attended a meeting he pledged to attend, and his staff returns phone calls and researches issues. Amazing. Unheard of in the history of American politics.

    Still waiting for answers. What evidence do you have that proves Johnson actively engages with his constituents while Feingold ignored them? Feingold was infamous for visiting every single county in the state. Has RoJo done that?

  9. Thomas says:

    I met Russ Feingold in person close to half a dozen times during the years he served as our senator. Among the most memorable of those times was when I had just finished photo-copying tax forms in a convenience store. As I was paying for the copies, the cashier on duty whispered “Senator Feingold is in the bathroom.” Seconds later, the senator emerged from the bathroom. I hailed him and held my photocopies above my head, saying “Senator, can you help me with my taxes?”

    “What’s the problem?” Russ rubbed his hands together in a gesture intended to continue drying his hands and/or to get to work on a problem.

    “Just joking,” I responded. “I just wanted to see how you would react. I just photo-copied these things, and I am tired of them. I am ready to mail them in.”

    Russ smiled and laughed and gestured as if he were wiping his brow. The cashier and other customers in the store all laughed, too. Hands were shaken, pleasantries exchanged … We watched from the store as our senator drove an econobox (a Chrysler P.T. Cruiser) out of the parking lot. His celebrity notwithstanding, Russ seemed like one of us.

    Thanks, Orville, for your anecdote on RJ making the meeting in Waukesha. It inspired me to recall my random “brush with greatness” when I met Senator Feingold in a convenience store.

  10. Vincent Hanna says:

    RoJo is a tool. He complains about how negative the campaign is and acts as if he has played no role in that whatsoever. WCD would call him a “whiner” if he was D and not R. He also blasts Feingold for being elite. This from a filthy rich man able to pay himself $10 million after being elected. Sorry Ron but that puts you in elite company.

  11. wisconsin conservative digest says:

    Russ Feingold is not only a nasty, disliked, flake, in the senate, but never did anything except the McCain/Feingold disaster that brought us 527’s. Ron Johnson is a good man, who is one of the top experts on National security, the top join the Senate.

  12. Jason says:

    This should be Feingold’s election. Riding on Clinton’s coat tails. If Johnson is near tie with Feingold than Trump is in striking distance. Trump is dominating the state in everywhere but South East Wisconsin.

  13. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    Jason- Actually Drumpf is losing every area code in Wisconsin other than 920. You may wany to learn to read a poll other than shooting your dead-ender mouth off. I know that takes effort and thought, and that may be too much for you, but it might help you understand why you keep being WRONG ABOUT EVERYTHING.

    There’s a reason Clinton and the DSCC aren’t running ads in Wisconsin. They’ve seen the real numbers and know they don’t need to.

  14. Vincent Hanna says:

    Jason clinging to the delusion that Trump has a chance to win this election is so pathetic and sad. The only question left to be decided is how much Clinton wins by. Even Trump knows it’s over.

  15. suburban conservative says:

    Let’s see…when the Tomah VA had problems and tried to contact Feingold, how did that work for them? When they called Johnson, he took the ball and did something. When the VA called Tammy Baldwin, how did that work for them? Seems like any Democrat they call can’t be troubled to respond. Take the time to go around the state and listen to people all you want. If you don’t do anything about what you hear, what good are you?

  16. wisconsin conservative digest says:

    We challenge people to name the accomplishments of Russ and tammy, in 18 years: a stupid campaign bill that got us 527’s. No jobs, no money for state, “nutting”.
    Ron Johnson has been the leader in National security while those two nitwits would gut the armed forces and our intelligence forces.

  17. PMD says:

    Johnson will be unemployed in 11 days. But hey he’s rich so he’ll land on his feet.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us