Sen. Feingold Faces Tight Race In Wisconsin

NPR's David Greene talks to Mordecai Lee, a professor of governmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, about the U.S. Senate race there. Democrat Russ Feingold, an anti-war voice and champion of campaign finance reform, is in a tough fight to hold his seat against a political newcomer, Republican Ron Johnson.

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DAVID GREENE, host:

And now to Wisconsin, where much to Democrats' dismay, there is a familiar story line. Veteran, well-known Democrat faces surprising challenge. Russ Feingold, an anti-war voice in the party and a champion of campaign finance reform, is in a tough fight to hold his seat against a political newcomer, Republican Ron Johnson.

And to get to the bottom of this race, we turn to Mordecai Lee. He's a professor of governmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin. Welcome to the program.

Professor MORDECAI LEE (Governmental Affairs, University of Wisconsin): Thanks very much for inviting me.

GREENE: So it sounds like everyone was surprised to see Russ Feingold in a close race this year, except for Russ Feingold himself. He saw some worrisome signs shortly after President Obama came into office.

Prof. LEE: Thats right. He must have a pretty good political antenna, because he must have been sensing that, even before it started, this sort of reaction in public opinion against big change. He positioned himself awfully well, it seems to me. After all, he voted against TARP and he voted against the financial reform bill. But he did vote for the stimulus bill, and so that becomes the symbol of him being a Democratic incumbent from Washington.

GREENE: We've loved playing political ads this week, professor, from around the country. But Im especially excited about playing some from your state, Wisconsin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENE: Because they really do seem to capture the candidates. Here's one from Russ Feingold.

(Soundbite of a political ad)

Unidentified Man #1: Russ's fight to protect local jobs from being shipped overseas and create jobs here has earned him the respect of Wisconsin families and small businesses. And his stand against wasteful spending and automatic pay raises for members of Congress has earned him a lot of lonely lunches in Washington.

GREENE: Lonely lunches in Washington...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENE: I mean, Feingold has built the reputation as someone who will take on the establishment, sort of go at it alone sometimes.

Prof. LEE: Indeed, and I think it's not sort of maverickness for maverick-sake. I think it truly is his personality, that he has a slightly different take on some ideological issues. And even when he was state senator, he wasnt sort of your vanilla Democrat.

GREENE: So why is this not helping him hold on to some support in an anti-incumbent kind of year? I mean, he, you would think, would find it a little easier to go out and say, hey, you know, Im different. You dont have to take out your anger on me.

Prof. LEE: You know what, David? Sort of beats me and Im a professor of government. I think it must mean that the national political mood is trumping the sort of local Wisconsin mood. Given that he's never taken his re-election for granted, you would think he'd be in better shape. So it must that what the national media is reporting is much deeper and much stronger here in Wisconsin than we had realized.

GREENE: Now for quite an ad. This is from the Republican Ron Johnson. And I want to set it up a little bit. He's standing with his family in his house, and his family is appearing to read their lines from a script.

(Soundbite of a political ad)

Mr. RON JOHNSON (R-Wisconsin, Senatorial Candidate): Introducing the Ron Johnson family.

Unidentified Woman #1: He's a really super dad.

Unidentified Man #1: He's a great role model.

Unidentified Woman #2: He's worked extremely hard all his life.

Unidentified Woman #3: A wonderful husband for 33 years.

Mr. JOHNSON: Okay, thats enough. Obviously, Im not a professional politician and they're not professional actors. We're just a Wisconsin family worried about our country.

GREENE: Just a Wisconsin family. So tell us a little bit about Ron Johnson. Never been in politics but does have a lot money.

Prof. LEE: Right. Six months ago, nobody had heard of him. And as a result of sort the Tea Party movement, he became this prototypical kind of candidate: a successful businessman, never been involved in politics, never ran for office; unhappy about the Obama administration and the record of Congress. And I think thats an indication of what kind of sort of tidewater he's riding.

GREENE: And I guess, actually, some of the polls we've seen showed Ron Johnson actually taking a bit of a lead in the race.

Prof. LEE: Indeed, and thats whats so surprising. The only logical explanation was that he came out of the primary, which we had in Wisconsin last week, with what they used to call Big Mo, with some kind of momentum. But I think it means that as a result of the ads we've been seeing on the airways -like the two ads that you just played - that somehow he's gaining the benefit, that somehow the mood of the casual voter is towards him rather than towards the maverick incumbent.

GREENE: We've been chatting about the Wisconsin Senate race with Professor Mordecai Lee. He's a professor of government affairs at the University of Wisconsin. Professor, thanks for joining us.

Prof. LEE: Thank you, David.

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