The race for Russ Feingold's Senate seat is officially a toss-up.
Businessman Ron Johnson, after winning the Republican primary in a walk, has pulled ahead of Feingold in the polls. Feingold, the 18-year incumbent, is suddenly the underdog.
So who is Ron Johnson, anyway? The gap between Johnson's edge in the polls and what we actually know about him is huge.
So far, the 55-year-old plastics manufacturer from Oshkosh has been running a stealth campaign - long on TV ads, short on public appearances. He hardly speaks to the press, and he has sought to avoid debates.
The first thing Johnson did after winning the Sept. 14 primary was to bow out of a debate the following Sunday with Feingold, saying it was too soon. He has now agreed to debate Feingold three times this fall, beginning Oct. 8 - not the six debates the Feingold campaign wanted.
Johnson's campaign has good reasons to worry about sending their man out under the bright lights. So far they've had to retract or "clarify" statements he's made on an array of issues, including gun control, global warming, drilling in the Great Lakes, his ownership of more than $300,000 in BP stock, and his company's receipt of money from the federal government to create 11 jobs, including, possibly, his own. (Johnson claimed not to know anything about this federal grant - although he was, it turns out, the company's accountant at the time.)
Why should anyone believe Johnson, a man with no policy background who would join the seniority-driven Senate as a freshman with no pull and a handful of ill-informed opinions, would be a better senator than Feingold, a constitutional scholar who served 10 years in the state Legislature before winning his Senate seat? During his 18 years in Washington, Feingold has made a national name for himself by writing campaign finance legislation and opposing Wall Street bailouts, government spying and illegal wars - all while staying in close touch with his constituents in Wisconsin.
For Johnson's supporters, it's all about his business experience. Johnson's campaign touts him as someone who has created jobs by building a business from the ground up. But it's not that simple.
Johnson made his money the old-fashioned way: He married into it. When he wed Jane Curler back in the 1970s, he joined her brother, Pat Curler, and Pat's new plastics business, Pacur, an offshoot of the Curler family packaging empire. Firms associated with the Curler family still provide more than $9 million in business each year to Pacur, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
There's nothing inherently wrong about getting a leg up in business through family connections. But it puts a different gloss on Johnson's bootstraps rhetoric. He opposes extending unemployment insurance because, "When you continue to extend unemployment benefits, people really don't have the incentive to go take other jobs."
Johnson's incentives in life have all been carrots, but for Wisconsin's unemployed workers in this recession, he prescribes a big stick.
He also opposes government stimulus spending - despite having specifically sought some for the Oshkosh opera house. He opposes health-care reform as "an assault on our freedom."
Perhaps Johnson believes that, like unemployment insurance, more health care will only encourage sick people to lie around whining.
Ron Johnson has taken a plethora of wacky positions. He called climate-change science "lunacy" and attributes global warming to "sun spots."
He stood with BP against what he called the Obama administration's "assault" after the massive oil spill in the Gulf. He now denies he supports drilling in the Great Lakes but when asked directly about it said, "We have to get the oil where it is."
In an interview with George Will, Johnson pined for the good ol' days when Reagan slashed the top tax rate. Naturally, he favors extending Bush's tax breaks for people in his own tax bracket.
Johnson has big plans for this money. He has committed to spending $15 million of his personal fortune to help buy himself a Senate seat. And that's just the beginning. Right-wing groups, including the Club for Growth, plan to dump even more money into our state to buy more TV ads touting Ron Johnson.
In an Orwellian touch, the ads tar Democrats including Feingold as "out of touch with the financial plight of average Americans."
In fact, Feingold is one of only a handful of non-millionaires in the U.S. Senate. He still lives in the modest Middleton house from which he launched his first U.S. Senate campaign. In short, he is more in touch with the financial plight of average Americans than Johnson has ever been.
Nonetheless, Johnson may be swept into office on a tide of anti-incumbent anger stoked by the recession and Republicans who want to manipulate people's insecurity for their own cynical ends.
Johnson has courted Tea Party voters. But he has also raised suspicions by flip-flopping on constitutional issues the Tea Partiers hold dear. He alienated the Rock River Patriots when he said he'd be willing to see a DMV-type government licensing agency oversee gun ownership, and then reversed that position after Feingold ran radio ads attacking it.
Perhaps Johnson's biggest flip-flop is on the Patriot Act.
At the big Tea Party rally in Madison last summer, Johnson borrowed a page from Feingold and attacked the provisions of the Patriot Act that expand government wiretapping and even the subpoenaing of citizens' library records. But he has since moderated that view, declaring his support for the Patriot Act and saying, "sometimes you have to give up a little" of your freedoms when it comes to fighting terrorism.
Feingold shakes his head at this.
"For him to identify the number-one thing that I have identified in the Patriot Act - subpoenaing your library records, and then turning around and saying I was wrong to take that position? This guy is taking flip-flopping to a triple-salchow level."
Beyond that, Feingold questions whether Johnson, who grew up in Minnesota, cares about Wisconsin at all.
"He makes no reference to Wisconsin," Feingold says. "He seems to show no sensitivity to Wisconsin. He talks about national, political talking points off Fox News."
In contrast, says Feingold, "I am steeped in Wisconsin traditions. Whether it be the right to bear arms or the fact that Wisconsin created the idea of unemployment compensation insurance. Or whether it just be the notion that we in Wisconsin don't believe that those who have a lot can just look at those who have nothing and say, 'Hey, unemployment compensation? That's just because they're being lazy.' That's not what I was brought up to believe are Wisconsin values."
Feingold says those values include "honorable public service," despite Johnson's attacks on him as a "career politician."
"People who have chosen what I've chosen - I've chosen not to be rich - do this because [they] like it," he says. "What is wrong with that?" He mentions Gaylord Nelson - another career legislator from Wisconsin who achieved national stature by standing up for big ideas.
Feingold is that rare creature - a senator who doesn't carry water for any industry or special interest group, or even his own party. As the Wisconsin State Journal recently reported, Feingold has voted against the Democrats 887 times - including 97 times when he was the lone holdout, more than any other senator.
In fact, Feingold stands for the very ideals that most energize the Tea Party movement - the ones Ron Johnson talked about when he was speaking in front of that Tea Party rally in Madison a few months ago: the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, government by the people.
If Johnson wins, we will lose the one member of the Senate who actually stands up for those ideals.
Three reasons to vote for Russ Feingold
1. He's not a millionaire. While Johnson is spending millions of his personal fortune to buy his Senate seat, Feingold is funding his campaign in large part with small donations. It's nice having someone in the Senate who understands what it's like to live in the real world.
2. He is a true public servant. When Johnson attacks Feingold as a "career politician," it's worth asking: Why is dedicating your life to public service a disqualifier for holding elective office? In the Senate, Feingold has sponsored major legislation on issues Johnson has only just begun to learn about. Feingold knows the legislative process and has seniority.
3. He is proudly independent. Feingold cast the only Senate vote against the U.S. Patriot Act, and voted against Obama's latest bank bailouts and what he calls "this very dubious policy in Afghanistan." Feingold is not in anyone's pocket. His independence and commitment to principle do our state proud.
Ruth Conniff, an Isthmus columnist since 1994, is the political editor of The Progressive.