- Associated Press - Monday, October 24, 2016

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson’s branding of Democratic opponent Russ Feingold as a “phony” is a desperate move, Feingold said on Monday, hours after the Republican incumbent’s campaign expressed confidence in the race 15 days before the election.

The exchange between Johnson and Feingold is the latest sign of how heated and personal the race has become in the closing weeks. Feingold is trying to avenge his 2010 loss to Johnson and help Democrats make progress toward recapturing majority control of the Senate. Johnson is trying to overcome heavy Democratic turnout in a presidential year to win a second term.

Johnson, both in a newspaper editorial board interview on Friday, in a weekend campaign stop and again in a radio interview Monday, referred to Feingold as a “phony.” Johnson first leveled the charge after referencing comments Feingold had made about being able to “feel like a guy from Wisconsin who is leading a life that is similar to other people.” Feingold was talking about the past six years since losing his 2010 Senate re-election bid to Johnson.

Feingold was asked to react to being called a phony before he cast an in-person absentee ballot in Middleton, a suburb of Madison where he lives.

“I’ve not heard a lot of that kind of thing in the races I’ve been in in the past,” said Feingold, who served three terms in the Senate before being ousted by Johnson. “I realize when somebody’s desperate, when a politician feels like he’s probably going to lose, he gets a little shaky on that and starts maybe doing some things he shouldn’t do. It’s not my concern.”

In an interview Friday with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board, Johnson was speaking of Feingold and said “I don’t respect phoniness.” Johnson went on to deride Feingold as a “Washington elitist, someone who went to Harvard and Oxford, who has bamboozled folks here in Wisconsin that he’s this independent, little maverick guy that has their best interests at heart.”

Feingold, over the weekend and initially on Monday, tried not to weigh in on the comment.

“I respect Sen. Johnson and I respect the office he holds and I’m not going to go there,” Feingold said Monday, before calling Johnson desperate.

Feingold’s comments came hours after Johnson’s campaign released a memo expressing confidence in the race based on their internal polling, voter contacts, campaign staffing and volunteer efforts and cash on hand.

“There’s no doubt that we enter the final two weeks of the campaign with the wind at our backs and Senator Feingold and his team on the run,” said Johnson’s campaign manager Betsy Ankney.

A Marquette University Law School poll released two weeks ago showed the race to be about even. But a Monmouth University poll last week had Feingold up by 8 points and a St. Norbert University poll showed Feingold ahead by 12. Johnson has never led in the Marquette poll, which has been regularly surveying voters about the race for more than a year.

Ankney did not refer to the two recent polls showing Johnson down in the race, but instead said “polling has been all over the map this cycle given the unconventional environment, which is why we rely on our proven data operation and feel confident about our numbers.”

Also on Monday, the Let America Work super PAC announced it was launching a “substantial” television ad campaign targeting Feingold. The group has already spent nearly $900,000 on the race to help Johnson, but the political action committee’s senior adviser Curt Anderson refused to say on a conference call with reporters how much it was spending on the new ad.

Even before that ad buy, PACs have spent six times as much to help Johnson over Feingold. A tally by the Center for Responsive Politics showed $8.9 million going to help Johnson so far, compared with $1.4 million for Feingold.

Johnson said on Friday that he was “not particularly happy with all the false attacks, the unbelievable negativity of his campaign against me.”

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Associated Press writer Todd Richmond contributed to this report. Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP and find more of his work at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/scott-bauer

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