On, Wisconsin: Feingold Return No Sure Thing

by Stuart Rothenberg May 5, 2010 · 9:00 AM EDT

When former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) announced recently that he wouldn’t enter the 2010 Senate race and challenge Sen. Russ Feingold (D), many of us crossed the state off our list of competitive races.

Maybe we were a bit premature.

Two more Republicans — former state Commerce Secretary Dick Leinenkugel and businessman Ron Johnson — are joining the two GOPers already in the contest, businessman Terrence Wall and Dave Westlake, and the newly expanded field is just one reason for reconsidering my knee-jerk judgment.

None of these four hopefuls possesses all of the qualities of the ideal challenger. But this cycle, Republicans may not need ideal challengers to win, even in the Badger State.

Let’s be clear: Russ Feingold isn’t damaged goods the way Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is, and he isn’t running in a Republican-leaning state, the way Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.) is. He’s an aggressive campaigner who has always tried to avoid the Washington insider label.

But Feingold’s numbers suggest a serious GOP challenger could make his life uncomfortable, and the fact that the three-term Senator would go up with his first television ad in April is reason enough to take another look at the race.

Feingold supporters will say that running the early media means that he won’t be caught napping and guarantees that he won’t become vulnerable. But the ad buy at the very least reflects an awareness that the political environment is working against him.

The Wisconsin Democrat’s initial spot, “Forward,” opens with black-and-white photographs of successful Wisconsinites, political and nonpolitical. Speaking over the photographs, other modern-day images and newspaper clips, Feingold notes that he has been “tough on wasteful spending” and stood up to “the big banks” by voting “‘no’ to the bailout.”

Feingold has built an image in the state and in Washington as a maverick, and the ad echoes that message, seeking to put him on the side of the average voter and against Congress.

“He’s the original maverick, but he’s been in the Senate for almost 18 years,” observed one Democrat, noting that Feingold’s longevity and association with the Senate is a problem for him in the current environment.

While a recent Research 2000 poll for the liberal Daily Kos website showed Feingold leading Thompson narrowly and holding comfortable leads over Wall and Westlake, other polling, both public and private, shows that the Senator has slipped noticeably over the past few months and now is under 50 percent against potential GOP challengers.

Given the electorate’s mood, one of the two newest entries into the Republican contest could turn into a serious threat to Feingold.

Leinenkugel’s family business, Leinenkugel Brewing Co., has given him some name identification, and his 18 months serving as the state’s commerce secretary gives him an aura of bipartisanship.

But Leinenkugel, who announced his candidacy last week, served for a year and a half as secretary of commerce in the administration of Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, and Republican primary voters may bridle at the idea of a Doyle cabinet member running for the Republican Senate nomination.

Those voters may not agree with Leinenkugel’s comment that was still on the Department of Commerce website last week: “We have a very ‘pro-business’ governor … [who] governs from the center.” Still, if he can win the Republican nomination, he could have broad enough appeal to threaten Feingold.

Businessman Ron Johnson, who hasn’t formally announced his candidacy yet, has the same potential. Johnson, 55, owns PACUR Inc., an Oshkosh-based plastics company. He has never run for office before, but he has decided to enter the GOP Senate primary. Like many businessmen who take the plunge into elective politics, he’ll learn that running for office is harder than it looks.

Allies of Johnson describe him as “smart and personable,” but they acknowledge that as a first-time candidate he will have plenty to learn. He has considerable personal resources and apparently is willing to invest a considerable amount into his campaign.

One veteran campaign watcher told me recently that while Thompson ran best against Feingold in the polls, he was not going to win in November.

“The only way Republicans can beat Feingold is with a nonpolitician, a businessman — not with a longtime politician,” said the observer, a Democrat.

With Wall not catching fire and Westlake not running a serious race, Johnson and Leinenkugel would seem to have the opportunity to build momentum between now and the Sept. 14 primary. But both have plenty to prove.

After that, the eventual Republican nominee will have to hope that Feingold’s ads haven’t solidified his numbers enough to make him invulnerable.

But if voters are dissatisfied with the outlook on jobs, the performance of the Obama administration and the direction of the country, even Russ Feingold may find out that 18 years in Washington, D.C., makes for a pretty big target. Don’t forget about this race entirely.