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Will Feingold Get Swept Away by GOP Wave?

Will Feingold Get Swept Away by GOP Wave?

By Tom Bevan - August 12, 2010


Two years ago, when Barack Obama stormed to a 13-point victory over John McCain in Wisconsin (en route to a seven-point, 365 electoral vote win nationwide) few political observers would have singled out Wisconsin Democratic Senator Russ Feingold as one of the party's most vulnerable incumbents in 2010.

Yet, with just over eighty days until the November midterms, that's exactly where Feingold finds himself. The three-term Democrat from Middleton is in the fight of his political life, running neck-and-neck with a political novice and virtual unknown, Republican Ron Johnson. (Johnson is the odds on favorite to beat his primary opponent, Dave Westlake, on September 14). With the exception of Senator Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas, Feingold is now arguably the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent in the country.

Feingold burst onto the scene 1992, routing two better known and better funded opponents in the Democratic primary. In November, as Bill Clinton carried the Badger State by five points, Feingold upset incumbent Republican Bob Kasten, 53 to 46, despite being outspent by more than two-to-one. Feingold was one of only two Democratic challengers in the entire country to oust a Republican incumbent that year. (Dianne Feinstein in California was the other).

In 1998, Feingold narrowly avoided being ousted after his first term, winning just 51% of the vote in a three-point win over Republican Mark Neumann. That year, Democrats won the two party vote nationwide by an identical 51-48 margin, and the parties traded three seats each for a net gain of zero.

Six years later, Feingold earned a third term with a much easier 11-point win over a less than stellar opponent. However, despite spending $9 million on his reelection, Feingold managed just 55% of the vote.

Overall, 2004 was a decent year for Republicans; George Bush won reelection with a record setting 62 million votes nationwide and Republicans picked up four Senate seats - though with only one exception (South Dakota) the GOP's gains were confined to the South. And Wisconsin, which had split evenly between Bush and Gore in 2000, was deadlocked again, going to John Kerry by a mere 11,000 votes.

Over the course of his career, Feingold has compiled an impressively eclectic voting record, which he frames to voters as a mark of independence; his near religious devotion to campaign finance reform, his staunch anti-war and civil libertarian views, and his support of the 2nd Amendment. Feingold himself is a bit of an enigma for Wisconsin: a Jew with advanced degrees from Oxford and Harvard representing a heavily Catholic and Lutheran state where nearly one in three workers are blue collar.

This brief review of Feingold's history helps illustrate two points: first, that while Feingold may be somewhat of an odd fit for the state, he's proven to be a resourceful campaigner and a survivor, and, second, that Feingold has never had to stand for reelection in an environment as nasty the current one is for incumbents in general - and for Democrats in particular.

And for all of Feingold's efforts to portray his independence, he cast two monumental votes last year that have put him squarely in the crosshairs of voters who are upset by the agenda of the President and the Democratic party that's coming out of Washington D.C.: his vote in favor of the $787 billion stimulus bill and his vote in favor of President Obama's health care plan.

Looming over it all, of course, is the economy. At the end of June, Wisconsin's unemployment rate was 8.1%. While that is nearly a point and a half below the national jobless rate, it's also double what it was in October, 2004 - the last time Feingold stood for reelection.

Overall, then, it's not difficult to see why Feingold is in such jeopardy. Of the four most recent surveys in Wisconsin - taken over the last two months by four different polling firms - Feingold has failed to generate more than 46% support in any poll.

Again, to call such numbers - eighty days out from Election Day and against a novice and relative unknown - a sign of weakness is to engage in the art of understatement. Feingold is sailing in very rough political seas and is in real danger of being washed away by a GOP wave in November.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics and the co-author of Election 2012: A Time for Choosing. Email: tom@realclearpolitics.com, Twitter: @TomBevanRCP

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