Russ Feingold seemed as well-positioned as any Senate Democratic incumbent to fend off a Republican challenge this year. The Wisconsinite is pro-gun in a hunting-happy state, has a history of voting against his party - including rejecting the unpopular TARP Wall Street bailout - and has avoided even a hint of personal scandal.
Yet the three-term senator who portrays himself as a principled maverick in a state where neither major party dominates trails political newcomer Ron Johnson, an Oshkosh businessman, by a significant margin in the polls. And with just over three weeks to go before the Nov. 2 midterm elections, many political analysts say the race now is the challenger’s to lose.
“The problem that [Mr. Feingold] is facing this year is that voting against [the Wall Street bailout] and voting for guns is not going to be something that wins conservative voters for him,” said Charles H. Franklin, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
“Guns and TARP really aren’t very effective appeals to mute Johnson’s appeal to the same set of conservative Republican and moderate voters.”
The vote against the bailout might help, but Mr. Feingold also supported two key pillars of the Obama agenda the health care overhaul and the $814 billion economic stimulus plan that have not proved to be popular this campaign season.
“In spite of an occasional token vote against the Democratic Party consensus, he is quite clearly a liberal Democrat,” said John C. McAdams, a political science professor at Milwaukee’s Marquette University.
The senator also doesn’t have a major “signature” legislative achievement this year like he did in 2004, when he campaigned on what was then the generally popular “McCain-Feingold” campaign-finance reform bill.
The candidates faced off Friday in Milwaukee in their first debate, an event with few surprises as both candidates largely stuck to their campaign scripts.
Unlike some other Democrats who voted for the Obama administration’s health care reform initiative, Mr. Feingold unabashedly defended his vote.
“The big thing is, we finally get control of the insurance companies,” he told reporters after the debate.
Mr. Johnson, who has said the main reason he entered the race was to help repeal the law, countered that the nation’s health care system was already the finest in the world and needed only minor improvements.
“If the Republicans take over one of the houses of Congress, they start writing the replacement bills from Day One so we can show the American people, ‘This is what we intend to do,’ ” he said.
Polls reflect a clear edge for the challenger. An average of recent surveys compiled by RealClearPolitics.com give Mr. Johnson a 9-percentage-point lead. A Rasmussen Reports poll taken Sept. 29 had Mr. Feingold trailing 54 percent to 42 percent, the biggest margin of the campaign.
Even the Democrat-leaning Public Policy Polling showed an 11-point disadvantage for the incumbent in a mid-September survey for the liberal website Daily Kos.
Meanwhile, Mr. Johnson, 55, who owns a successful plastics company and who never before has run for office, is being given credit for orchestrating an aggressive and confident campaign.
“Ron Johnson is turning out to be a very good, very capable candidate, and the fact that he had a ton of money doesn’t hurt either,” Mr. McAdams said. “He’s done a very good job responding to and pre-empting Feingold’s attacks.”
His lack of political experience resulted in a few early campaign stumbles. During a meeting months ago with “tea party” supporters, he expressed support for the USA Patriot Act, a law enacted during the George W. Bush administration that is loathed by many in the conservative movement as an infringement of personal rights. A lack of detailed knowledge of some constitutional issues also didn’t help.
But since winning the Republican nomination in the spring, Mr. Johnson aided by a smart and savvy campaign staff has refined his message and appearance.
Mr. Johnson, soon after winning his party’s endorsement, trailed the incumbent in several polls by less than 5 percentage points even though the surveys showed a majority of voters didn’t recognize his name.
“That is stunning for a candidate to be that little known and yet run just a few points behind the incumbent,” Mr. Franklin said. “I think that’s the strongest evidence there is that voters this year were not evaluating Ron Johnson versus Russ Feingold based on what they know about Ron Johnson. They were evaluating a Republican conservative, maybe with tea party ties, versus the Democrat.”
The Democrat has embraced Mr. Obama’s agenda at times and appeared with the president at a huge Sept. 28 campaign rally in Madison, despite reports that he was planning to skip the event. One of Mr. Feingold’s campaign ad defends his vote for the health care bill and accuses Mr. Johnson of siding with insurance companies at the expense of ordinary Wisconsins.
To be competitive, Mr. Feingold must define his opponent and attack him on specific issues, analysts say.
“He’s got to find something negative to say against Ron Johnson that really sticks,” Mr. McAdams said. “I’m not that sure what that would be, so I think the odds are pretty strongly that Ron Johnson becomes senator.”
But the Feingold camp also has suffered a few embarrassments. The campaign was forced to pull and re-edit a TV ad last week when it included a small but unauthorized video clip from a National Football League game. Last month, the senator was admonished for using a clip from a Madison, Wis., TV station without permission.
Dean Debnam of Public Policy Polling said there is still time for Mr. Feingold to recover, although he said the incumbent must find and exploit a significant weakness in the Johnson campaign. One problem: His Republican rival does not have the long trail of colorful and provocative statements on issues that tea-party-backed newcomers have had to defend in other races across the country.
“What I’ve been saying to Democratic incumbents is, the bad news is it’s an anti-incumbent year; the good news is it’s not a pro-crazy year, except that [Mr. Johnson] hasn’t put himself in the far crazy position like [Delaware Republican Senate nominee] Christine O’Donnell,” said Mr. Debnam. “So it doesn’t give [Mr. Feingold] as much room to move.”