Russ Feingold is running for his old U.S. Senate seat against Sen. Ron Johnson.
Feingold is going to win. I’d bet serious money on it. (I say that with the caveat that serious money to me means $20.)
First of all, he has the calendar on his side. Wisconsin has never been a purple state. Since the 1980s, barring wave years or disruptive third-party candidates, Wisconsin reliably votes for Democrats in presidential elections while putting Republicans in office during the midterm elections. That’s how the same state sends both Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin to Washington in the span of two years.
Because of the six-year term for U. S. senators, they are only ones who have to have to run statewide races in both red and blue Wisconsin.
Feingold’s own electoral record shows how much the date of an election can matter. He received comfortable margins in 1992 and 2004, both presidential election years.
However, Feingold has only once won a midterm election. That was in 1998, a midterm election that went pretty well for Democrats, particularly compared to the disastrous midterms of 2010 and 2014. The economy under Clinton was doing well, while Republicans decided to campaign on the everlasting Monica Lewinsky scandal and seemingly nothing else. Still, even in a good midterm, Feingold barely squeaked by Rep. Mark Neumann to win a second term.
In 2010, Feingold’s loss was more the result of timing and the national mood versus Wisconsin’s dissatisfaction with his service as a senator. Meanwhile, Ron Johnson won for the exact reasons that Feingold lost. The plastic magnate was tea party figurehead, not a candidate who stood on his own merits.
Johnson still hasn’t made much of an impression in Wisconsin. In the most recent Marquette poll, in April, 39% of respondents didn’t feel comfortable saying they had a positive or negative opinion about Johnson. After more than four years in office, he’s all but nonexistent to almost four out of 10 Wisconsinites.
One of Feingold’s great strengths is his ability to fire up two blocs of voters, progressives and the disillusioned. It is important to note that those are two groups that so far seem less than ecstatic about Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy. Feingold rode into office in 1992 with help from a national Clinton campaign; he might be a crucial ally in helping another Clinton win Wisconsin in 2016.
His record with progressives is long, but I’m happy he’s not just resting on past accomplishments. He’s already back to challenging centrist elements in his own party by opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
What really excites me is Feingold’s ability to energize the disillusioned — those potential voters who lean Democratic but have been turned off by the vitriol and inauthenticity of the Obama/Walker era.
When Feingold announced he was running, my social media feeds blew up. But the people posting weren’t just the same Madison liberals who tweet about every single bill that passes through the state Capitol — some of the people putting up his announcement video almost never post about politics. As one of my Facebook friends posted, “Finally, a candidate I want to vote for!”
Feingold is far to the left of the majority of Wisconsinites, but he gets respect because he is genuine about what he believes. He votes with his heart and his head and not with polling data. That’s rare.
Feingold’s time out of office gives him another advantage. His four-year political absence enabled him to avoid most of the petty nastiness that has taken over the state. Too many Democrats in the state are defined almost entirely by their opposition to Scott Walker. Feingold seems like a grownup returning to a state governed by grumpy toddlers.
Unfortunately, it is going to take more than Russ Feingold to rebuild the Democratic Party in Wisconsin.
When state Democrats pick a new party chair next month, they should look for someone who will recruit and promote a slate of authentic candidates in the mold of Feingold.
Democrats should craft a party platform they can rally around, but one that shouldn’t be used as a purity test. Remember, Feingold has gone against his party many, many times, and that doesn’t mean he’s a bad Democrat. If he was a brand-new senator in today’s political landscape, liberal bloggers would regularly take potshots at him for his political independence.
I am certain Russ Feingold will once again represent Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate. If other Democrats in the state follow his lead, someday I might be able to be as confident about their electoral chances.
Alan Talaga co-writes the Off the Square cartoon with Jon Lyons and blogs at isthmus.com/madland.