Feingold Comeback Could Be Trouble for Johnson But Signals Weak Democratic Bench

(Photocredit: Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press)

(Photocredit: Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press)

National Journal and other news outlets are reporting that former Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold will exit his post at the State Department as a U.S. envoy to Africa amid speculation that he will run for Senate in 2016.

Feingold was defeated by his opponent and now current Senator Ron Johnson in 2010. Since then it appears he has been spurring for a fight and 2016 might be the year to have one.

The Wisconsin Democrat only lost to Johnson 51.9% to 47%, or about 106,000 votes out of about 2.1 million ballots cast. Furthermore, if next year turns out to be a good for Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket, that would translate well down ballot to Feingold, who will be running in a state that has a sizable progressive population that is politically well organized.

What also works in Feingold’s favor is that polls show Senator Johnson is not doing well among likely voters in Wisconsin. Influential political commentator Larry Sabato of Center for Politics at the University of Virginia has rated the Wisconsin Senate race as “toss-up,” indicating that were Feingold to run he would be facing a relatively weak incumbent in a presidential election year that traditionally favors Democrats.

Wealthy Republican donors for their part have not been opening their checkbooks to support the embattled GOP incumbent. The latest campaign finance reports show Johnson has only banked a meager $600,000 for his reelection campaign as of the beginning of 2015, according to the National Journal. And GOP strategists consider him to be one of their most endangered senators up in 2016.

It is likely that these facts and more has led to change of strategy and tone for the conservative Wisconsin Republican representing a blue/purple state.

For one, Johnson has been talking much more about finding “common ground” with Democrats in the Senate, and chastising his fellow Republicans for wanting to shutdown the government over President Obama’s executive actions on immigration. He also touted his record working with his liberal Democratic counterpart, Senator Tammy Baldwin, and has accepted the fact that Republicans still don’t have the votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

All of this suggests that Johnson is trying to walk the narrow tightrope of putting as much distance between himself and his fellow Tea Party-style senators like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul as possible, while also not appearing too moderate so as discourage the conservative base turning out.

However, potential challenger Feingold is also not without his disadvantages. For one, it is always an extremely tough undertaking to defeat an incumbent, even a weaker one like Johnson, who can wield the national microphone whenever he chooses.

What’s more, Wisconsin, though it has voted reliably Democratic in the last six or seven elections, has been trending purple with a redish hue since Feingold’s 2010 defeat, bringing to power not only Johnson, but several conservative Republican House members, a GOP takeover of the state legislature, and most importantly Governor Scott Walker, whose presidential bid if successful could trickle down to Johnson.

Also, the current chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Preibus, is himself a native Wisconsin and will likely bring a large amount of party resources to bear on the state in support of Johnson.

The new campaign finance landscape may also play against the former three-term senator. During his time in the Senate, Feingold was a champion of restricting the First Amendment rights of political candidates, parties, and independent citizens groups through the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, colloquially known as McCain-Feingold after its two chief Senate co-sponsors.

And since several Supreme Court and lower court decisions abolishing independent political spending limits by corporations and unions, spending by super PACs and activist nonprofits have equalled or even surpassed the spending of candidates and parties, who are still bound by strict contribution limits. Were Feingold to embrace these independent groups, he could be painted as a hypocrite by the opposition and the media. But if he doesn’t, it is all but certain his campaign will be overwhelmed by Johnson and Republican-aligned groups.

All that aside, though, Democrats are extremely lucky to have Feingold run if he decides to. And that might be the party’s biggest problem going forward in future elections.

The fact that the Democratic Party is more and more dependent on legacy candidates due to their repeated electoral wipeouts in the US House of Representatives, governors mansions, and state legislatures, means that their farm team is very weak relative to the GOP, who have the opposite problem of having far too many candidates. And if Feingold doesn’t run, it’s hard to see what candidate has the ability to take on Johnson.

So whether Senator Johnson wins or loses his bid for reelection in 2016, structurally the GOP will remain in a stronger position going forward than the Democratic Party.

 

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