- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 4, 2010

It was supposed to be an easy re-election for Sen. Russ Feingold. And come November, it still may be. But for now, the Wisconsin Democrat is facing one of his toughest campaign challenges in a long and successful political career.

Polls show Mr. Feingold with a razor-thin lead over an unknown Oshkosh businessman with no political experience.

Although Republican Ron Johnson hasn’t even cleared his party’s primary, set for September, many in the Badger State say he poses a real threat to Mr. Feingold’s quest for a fourth six-year term in the Senate.

“Almost nobody knows anything about Johnson but yet he’s still only two to four points behind Feingold, and I think what that shows is just how energized Republicans are,” said Charles Franklin, a University of Wisconsin at Madison political science professor and co-founder of Pollster.com.

Results of a survey released last week by Public Policy Polling shows Mr. Feingold with 45 percent of the potential vote, compared with Mr. Johnson’s 43 percent.

Wisconsin voters have mixed feelings about the senator. Polls show 42 percent disapprove of his job performance - the same percentage who say they support him.

The survey also shows that 62 percent of Wisconsinites are unsure of their opinion of Mr. Johnson.

Johnson should win the primary and has a good chance of winning the general,” said Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling. “But he needs to focus on spreading his name and message. Feingold can’t depend on his popularity alone. He has to win over undecided voters - that is who is going to determine this election.”

A Rasmussen Reports survey taken about a week earlier showed Mr. Feingold with 46 percent of the vote - only one percentage point more than Mr. Johnson.

The two men also were tied in a Rasmussen poll in late May.

Businessman Dave Westlake is running against Mr. Johnson for the Republican primary Sept. 14. But with little money and weak polling numbers, he isn’t expected to pose a serious challenge.

Because Wisconsin voters are familiar with Mr. Feingold, who has served in the Senate since 1993, don’t expect his job performance numbers to improve significantly, political analysts say.

“That’s not likely to go up a lot because people just aren’t likely to learn a lot more about Feingold,” said Thomas M. Holbrook, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. “I think that’s a little bit of a concern for him.”

Mr. Johnson, 55, who owns a plastics company, has never before run for public office but jumped onto the political stage after Congress passed the Democrats’ health care reform package this year.

Ron, like so many people who are just getting involved [in politics] for the first time, saw what was going on in Washington and didn’t want to sit on the sidelines any longer,” said Johnson spokeswoman Kristin Ruesch. “The final straw for Ron was the passage of the health care bill; he viewed that as the largest assault on our freedom in his lifetime.”

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