- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 30, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - With his run for the White House behind him, Gov. Scott Walker said he will now be free to campaign aggressively to help fellow Republican Ron Johnson win re-election to the U.S. Senate in a rematch against Democrat Russ Feingold.

The question for Johnson is whether that’s good or bad news.

A Marquette University Law School poll released Wednesday showed that Walker’s approval rating fell to a new low, Johnson remains unknown to more than a third of registered voters and Feingold - a former U.S. senator - has a 14-point lead in the race that won’t be determined until November 2016.

Wisconsin’s Johnson-Feingold race is critical to Democratic hopes of recapturing majority control of the Senate, and they would seem to have the edge considering the election comes in a presidential year in a state that hasn’t backed a Republican’s White House bid since Ronald Reagan.

Even worse for Johnson: No Republican has won a Senate seat in a presidential election year in Wisconsin since 1980.

Walker’s victories in 2010, a June 2012 recall effort and his re-election last year all came in off-cycle elections when the president was not on the ballot and Democratic turnout was low. The number of votes cast for Walker in each of those elections was lower than what Republican Tommy Thompson received when he ran and lost for Senate in 2012 - a presidential year.

Thompson received 1.38 million votes in his loss to Democrat Tammy Baldwin. Walker never received more than 1.33 million votes in any of his three victories. In Johnson’s 2010 victory over Feingold, Johnson received just over 1.1 million votes.

The latest Marquette poll found that 37 percent of registered voters still don’t know enough about Johnson after five years in office to form an opinion. Twenty-six percent said they didn’t know enough about Feingold, who served 18 years in the Senate before Johnson ousted him in 2010, to form an opinion.

Johnson was viewed favorably by 27 percent of respondents, compared with 42 percent for Feingold. Feingold’s 14-point lead compares to a 5-point advantage in the August poll.

But pollster Charles Franklin cautioned about reading too much into the numbers, given how many voters still hadn’t made up their mind about either candidates.

“Voters are just not focused in on the race,” Franklin said.

The poll of 803 registered voters was conducted between Sept. 24 and Monday and has a margin of error of 4.1 percentage points.

Feingold is trying to become only the third senator nationwide since 1956 to return to the Senate after losing re-election. And it’s been even longer - 1934 - since someone beat the same person who knocked them out of office.

Walker will be a “nonfactor” in the Senate race because it will focus on national issues and be influenced by turnout in the presidential race, said Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster who worked on Feingold’s losing 2010 campaign.

Johnson backers said Walker’s commitment to being involved in the race can only be a benefit. And whether Walker is campaigning for Johnson or not, the Republican apparatus he helped build the past five years will be in place to spend money on the race and help get out the vote, they said.

“Any time you have the governor back full-time in the state, that’s a good thing for all of us,” said Republican Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke. “Scott Walker has always done a good job getting out the base and getting out our supporters.”

Johnson, who had not endorsed Walker when he was running for president, welcomes his support in his re-election campaign, said the senator’s spokesman Brian Reisinger.

Johnson “has no doubt Gov. Walker’s continued efforts to move Wisconsin forward will benefit our state, as well as Republican chances in 2016,” Reisinger said.

Walker’s approval rating hit a new low of 37 percent in the Marquette poll, down from 39 percent in August.

“I’m sure he could move the base to some degree,” Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca said of Walker getting involved in Johnson’s Senate race. “But I’m not sure how popular he is with the base.”


Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP

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