- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 20, 2016

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - A conservative group funded by the Koch brothers that is backing Sen. Ron Johnson canceled $2.2 million worth of ads it had planned to run to help the Republican in August and September, a blow to his re-election campaign as he tries to win a rematch against Democrat Russ Feingold.

Feingold has been outraising Johnson and leading in the polls in the closely watched race. Democrats are hoping to pick up the Senate seat as they try to regain majority control in the Senate.

The super PAC Freedom Partners Action Fund ran about $2 million worth of ads attacking Feingold in May. It was slated to run another $2.2 million in pro-Johnson ads over the next two months, but a Democratic media tracker said Wednesday that they had been canceled.

“We are realigning our television advertising strategy to ensure maximum impact across key Senate races,” Freedom Partners spokesman James Davis wrote in an email. “We will continue direct citizen outreach through our grassroots activists, volunteer phone calls, digital media and direct mail. Last weekend alone network grassroots organizations made almost half a million contact attempts to targeted audiences.”

The bad news for Johnson comes a day after he spoke in prime time at the Republican National Convention, a late-reversal from his long-held position that he was going to skip the gathering to campaign in Wisconsin. It also comes the day after the National Republican Senatorial Committee said it was delaying until October $1.3 million in ads it originally planned to run over the next two months.

Johnson campaign spokesman Brian Reisinger tried to downplay the effect of the ad cancellation by the group funded by influential billionaire conservatives Charles and David Koch.

“We just had our strongest fundraising quarter ever and the polls show this race tight,” Reisinger said. “We are comfortable and confident and believe we have the support to run a winning campaign. The voters already fired Senator Feingold once, and they will reject him again.”

In the three-month period ending in June, Johnson raised $2.8 million, up from $2.1 million in the first three months. That put him in the top three of all Senate Republicans. But he still trails Feingold, who served 18 years in the Senate before Johnson defeated him in 2010. Through the first six months of the year, Feingold raised about $7.4 million, compared with $4.9 million for Johnson. Feingold also had more money on hand at the end of June - $7.2 million compared with $6.3 million for Johnson.

A Marquette University Law School poll released last week showed Feingold ahead of Johnson by 5 points among likely voters and 7 points among registered voters. The race has tightened considerably since January, when Feingold was up by 12 points over Johnson among registered voters.

Johnson has benefited from spending by outside groups, which had outspent Feingold’s campaign by about $5 million to $1 million from the April 5 primary through late June. In addition to Freedom Partners, the ads benefiting Johnson have come from Americans for Prosperity, another Koch brothers group, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Let America Work and the Judicial Crisis Network.

“Senator Johnson has always relied on the Koch Brothers and these outside groups to run his campaign for him, so this must come as a disappointment for their model legislator,” said Feingold spokesman Michael Tyler in an emailed statement.

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Associated Press writer Julie Bykowicz in Cleveland contributed to this report.

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Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP and find more of his work at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/scott-bauer

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