Democrat Feingold Faces Tough Battle In Wisconsin

Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, and wife Jane

hide captionWisconsin Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Ron Johnson and his wife, Jane, celebrate at his primary victory party Sept. 14. The Tea Party favorite is leading incumbent Sen. Russ Feingold in some polls.

Morry Gash/AP

President Obama travels to Madison, Wis., on Tuesday for a rally on the University of Wisconsin campus to help boost the chances of his fellow Democrats in the November elections. One of those suddenly in an unexpectedly tight race is Sen. Russ Feingold, who is trailing in some polls behind Republican Ron Johnson, a millionaire businessman who is making his first run for public office.

The distinct smell of bratwurst, sauerkraut and beer wafted over the Oktoberfest Maple Leaf Parade in La Crosse, Wis., as tailgaters under tents and canopies lined the parade route. Dave Herlitzke was grilling brats and sipping a beer as politicians walked by.

The 36-year-old Herlitzke said he is still undecided in Wisconsin's tight Senate race between three-term incumbent Feingold and Johnson.

Election Scorecard: Rating The Midterms

NPR's Ken Rudin has rated the Wisconsin Senate race a "toss-up." See his analysis and his views on other midterm contests in the Election Scorecard.

"We definitely need someone that wants to create jobs, and that's what we really need, and … I don't know if Feingold is that or if Ron Johnson is that,” he said.

Herlitzke, a union carpenter, isn't too happy with the Democrats right now.

"I feel that we've seen little change when I thought … there would be big change," he said.

Johnson is trying to capitalize on that growing voter frustration with Wisconsin's struggling economy.

Like other upper Midwestern states, Wisconsin has lost tens of thousands of manufacturing and construction jobs in recent years.

Johnson is the head of a plastics manufacturing company in Oshkosh. While walking the parade route, he said that until six months ago, he had never even thought about running for office.

"This is not my life's ambition.  I'm in this race because our government is out of control,” Johnson said. “It's growing too large; it's spending way too much money. We're bankrupting our country, and this health care bill is going to destroy, not a perfect system, but the finest health care system in the world."

Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold talks with supporters.

hide captionWisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold talks with supporters before the 50th annual Oktoberfest Maple Leaf Parade in La Crosse, Wis., on Saturday.

David Schaper/NPR

Johnson spoke out passionately against the health care overhaul law at a Wisconsin Tea Party rally on Tax Day last spring and soon after jumped into the race for Senate. Spending millions of his own money, Johnson easily won Wisconsin's Republican primary two weeks ago and along the way has drawn into a dead heat with Feingold, whose seat had been considered safe for Democrats.

Feingold says he understands why, after his 18 years in office, Wisconsin voters might now be considering someone new.

"People are hurting, and they have a right to look at what you've done,” he said. “They have a right to say, 'OK, this guy's been in office — is he part of the solution or part of the problem?'  I've been part of the solution, but we also have to show we're going to continue to solve problems."

Feingold points to his willingness to vote against his own party on free-trade agreements, the Wall Street bailout and the recent financial reforms. That independent streak is something many Wisconsin voters appreciate, especially in Feingold's hometown of Janesville.

"I'm a big fan of his,” said Guy Stricker, a Marine Corps veteran who is now studying to become a teacher. "He's actually gone to the other side and worked with Republicans. ... I think he looks out for what he feels is best for his constituents, and that's why I like him."

But not everyone sees it that way.

"I've voted for Feingold since I can remember, but this year I'm not going to," said retired autoworker Jim Haseman.

He said the economy trumps all else.

"The definition of insanity is keep on doing the same thing and expecting a different result.  We're insane now,” he said. “I don't think we can keep on doing what we're doing."

To counter that rising tide against Feingold, Obama will try to rally the Democratic Party base on the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison. Democratic Party organizer Micah Peppers handed out leaflets on the mall where the rally will take place.

Peppers acknowledged that there's not quite the same level of political enthusiasm on campus as there was when Obama visited two years ago.

"It's definitely different because obviously in a presidential election people know there's an election, where a lot of students don't even know what a midterm election is or that it's coming up," he said.

Several students said they are getting fired up about Obama’s visit. Peppers said he hopes it will help make his job of turning out the student vote for Feingold and other Democrats easier come November.

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