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In Wisconsin, Feingold in Tough Senate Battle With ‘Outsider’ Businessman

October 5, 2010 at 4:54 PM EST
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With four weeks until Election Day, incumbent Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin is facing a tough midterm battle against GOP challenger Ron Johnson. Judy Woodruff reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We’re exactly four weeks away from Election Day, when voters may reshape the country’s political landscape. I spent last weekend in one state where a Democratic senator is in a surprisingly tough battle: Wisconsin.

If you’re looking for voters on a Sunday afternoon in Wisconsin, there’s no better place than the tailgate scene at a Green Bay Packers game.

MAN: Go, Packers!

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s where we found three-term Democratic Senator Russ Feingold on the eve of the start of early voting in the Badger State.

MAN: Go, Russ, go!

JUDY WOODRUFF: It wasn’t so long ago that Feingold, long viewed as a maverick in the Democratic Party, was assumed a shoo-in for a fourth term. His go-it-alone identity would inoculate him against problems other Democrats might have — so the thinking went. But that was before a new president and his ambitious agenda stirred up a hornet’s nest of opposition.

Wisconsin has voted Democratic in the last six presidential elections, some of them just narrowly — not in 2008, when then candidate Barack Obama carried the state by 14 percentage points.

But, less than two years later, with the economy still struggling and Obama policies under attack, all the Democrats here, even Russ Feingold, find themselves facing a tougher political environment.

A wealthy plastics manufacturer from Oshkosh was one of those stirred up enough to get involved with the Tea Party movement. Ron Johnson, who says he’s never before thought of running for public office, spoke at some rallies…

RON JOHNSON (R-Wis.), Senatorial Candidate: Well, good morning fellow patriots.

CROWD: Good morning!

JUDY WOODRUFF: … and was soon a candidate for the Senate, knocking off several better-known Republicans.

WOMAN: Hi.

RON JOHNSON: Ron Johnson, running for U.S. Senate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He put numerous ads on TV to introduce himself to the voters, stressing his outsider status.

RON JOHNSON: I spent the last 30 years building a manufacturing business in Oshkosh. Russ Feingold, he spent the last 30 years as a career politician. I have created secure jobs here in Wisconsin. Russ Feingold, he thinks government creates jobs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Johnson, who is spending millions of his own money to run, quickly singled out the size of government spending under President Obama, especially the stimulus plan, which Feingold supported.

RON JOHNSON: We are committing intergenerational theft, and it is immoral.

RON JOHNSON: You know, I think government has gotten too large and too intrusive. And if you just take a look over the last 50 years, the federal government has been spending about 20 percent of GDP. Now it’s up to 25 and 26.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD (D-Wis.): Here’s a guy that never said a word about George Bush’s reckless budget action. Here’s a guy who says he cares about spending and is an accountant, and knows how to count, who wants huge tax cuts for the wealthy in addition to the ones that are already in the so-called Bush tax cuts.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Johnson’s other main target has been the Obama health care reform plan, which Feingold also voted for.

RON JOHNSON: I believe that is designed to actually lead to a government takeover of health care. And, you know, we take a look at what a Canadian system looks like, what a British system looks like. And that’s rationed care, a lower quality of care. And, again, that’s what I think this health care bill is designed to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Feingold has become one of a handful of Democrats running this year to take on the criticism and defend health care reform and his vote. Just last week, he launched this ad.

WOMAN: Russ fought to stop insurance companies from denying Wisconsin children health care due to preexisting conditions.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: What was done here was historic. People have been trying to get this through for 70 years. And it’s going to take a while for people to realize the benefits. We finally beat the insurance industry. And Ron Johnson wants to give it back to them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But even some voters who were with Feingold the last time he ran say they’re changing their vote this time.

CORY SCHILLING, voter: I think there’s too many career — too many career people and politicians, instead of going with what’s — the needs of the people or what the people really want. For example, health care, 61 percent of the people didn’t want it. But instead of going with what the people want, they thought they knew better.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Still others say they continue to admire the senator’s voting record.

JOHANNA ALLEN, voter: We’re a little afraid of the baby getting thrown out with the bathwater.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean?

JOHANNA ALLEN: Well, we kind of think Feingold has been a pretty independent thinker. And I don’t know that he can be easily lumped into the majority, along with a lot of the other ones.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Most political watchers are still surprised that Feingold, who built an image of independence and who has beaten back challengers before, is facing such a serious threat this year. University of Wisconsin political scientist Barry Burden.

BARRY BURDEN, political scientist, University of Wisconsin-Madison: Ron Johnson has been able to convince voters that — at least some voters — that he’s responsible for many of the things happening in Washington that they don’t like at the moment: government spending, health care, stimulus funds and the like.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Compounding Feingold’s problem is a so- called enthusiasm gap, the higher interest, polls show this year, among conservative voters compared to those on the left.

Besides the seasoned Republican Party operatives he has brought in to help run his campaign, Johnson benefits from the Tea Party, a force that Tea Party organizer Mark Block says is bringing most of the excitement to Johnson’s campaign.

MARK BLOCK, Wisconsin Americans For Prosperity: What the Tea Party movement in Wisconsin has done is brought people into the process that have never been involved before. They are fearful that the government is intruding on their lives to an extent like it’s never done before.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Feingold’s corner going up against this phenomenon is the traditional get-out-the-vote effort on the left, including by organized labor.

AFL-CIO political and field director for the state Sara Rogers says her team is not wilting.

SARA ROGERS, Wisconsin AFL-CIO: We’re rolling up our sleeves. We’re putting our boots on. We’re getting out in the streets. We have been doing this for a long time. OK? This isn’t something that just sprung up in the last year or so because of a particular president who was elected to office. We have been in the streets for a number of years.

We know how to organize. We know how to mobilize our members. And, quite frankly, they are energized this year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Feingold’s campaign says they’re also looking to younger voters, who have a record of political engagement in Wisconsin. So, they got a big lift when a crowd of 26,000 showed up last week in the university town of Madison to see President Obama promoting the Democratic senator.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: He doesn’t always agree with me, but always agrees with the people of his state and looking out for them, Senator Russ Feingold.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Still, some Democratic rank-and-file voters who plan to vote Feingold say they’re worried.

MIKE PARISH, voter: I think it’s a lot of people in the middle that may stand on the sidelines.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that hurts.

MIKE PARISH: I think that hurts the Democrats. I think the issues that Russ Feingold has to argue about are more complicated, and he has to do so with a lot of substance. I think Ron Johnson’s positions and his party’s positions are — much more lend themselves to very quick sound bites.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But others are more confident.

PAUL HENNING, voter: I think it makes for good press. And this isn’t a knock on the press. It’s just it makes for a good story: Oh, the Republicans are energized. Oh, there’s going to be a right-wing takeover, you know, the Tea Party, blah, blah, blah.

And I hate to think that people like me who are of more of a progressive agenda are going to sit on their hands. As Obama said when he spoke in Madison just this week in fact, there’s too much at stake.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, with the latest public polls showing Feingold seven points down among people most likely to vote, that seems to be just what’s been happening. The interest level on both sides may rise this week when the two men meet for their first face-to-face debate.

Our 2010 election coverage will highlight key races in other states in the coming weeks.