For more than a year, it looked all but certain Democratic former Sen. Russ Feingold would make a triumphant return to Washington in January after defeating the Oshkosh manufacturer who seemed to emerge from nowhere to oust him in 2010. But in the final days of the 2016 campaign, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson is giving Feingold hell as the diametrically opposed candidates battle over a one-point race.
The candidates will spend the final hours of the race presenting their closing arguments in person and over the airwaves.
Feingold will present himself as a principled maverick who will return to the Senate to fight a rigged system, while Johnson will sell himself as an outsider who will use a businessman’s approach to create jobs.
Each candidate has sought to tie the other to his party’s presidential nominee, hoping their relative unpopularity will trickle down the ticket. That’s a more effective strategy for Feingold, as GOP nominee Donald Trump is viewed unfavorably by 61 percent of likely voters in Wisconsin, compared to 52 percent for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Feingold told reporters in Madison last week Johnson hasn’t done enough to differentiate himself from Trump.
“Obviously not sufficiently, or he would be ahead in the polls,” Feingold said. “But he’s not.”
Feingold leads Johnson by one point according to the most recent Marquette University Law School poll, and leads by an average of six points over the last three months.
In a speech in Madison on Friday, Vice President Joe Biden accused Johnson of being a “carbon copy” of Trump while frequently linking Feingold to Clinton as a positive alternative.
Johnson rejected Democrats’ attempts to link him to his party’s presidential nominee, telling reporters in Janesville this weekend, “I’m my own person.” He accused Feingold of running a “false and relentlessly negative campaign” against him.
“A 34-year career politician with hardly anything good to show for it — he resorts to lies and distortions,” Johnson said. “It’s really quite sad.”
Johnson’s counterpunch to Feingold’s Trump attacks is to criticize Feingold and Clinton as Washington insiders who favor big government over a limited approach.
Feingold and Clinton would “grow government and ask for more of your hard-earned money,” Johnson argued, while he would strive to do the opposite.
Republican officials join Johnson on bus tour
Johnson was joined by supporters including House Speaker Paul Ryan, Gov. Scott Walker, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and vice presidential nominee Mike Pence at stops throughout the state this weekend, including a factory tour in Janesville and a get-out-the-vote rally in Mukwonago.
Most of the stops featured a tour bus wrapped in a green “Ron Johnson for Wisconsin” banner.
The senator had stops planned Monday in Oshkosh and Waukesha featuring Ryan, Walker, Kleefisch and U.S. Reps. Glenn Grothman and Jim Sensenbrenner.
“Ron Johnson’s working hard for us in the United States Senate, for Wisconsin. He actually knows how to get things done. He’s actually getting things done,” Ryan told reporters in Janesville this weekend.
Ryan applauded Johnson’s role as chairman of the Senate homeland security committee, arguing the senator has proven he is committed to creating jobs and keeping the U.S. safe.
Johnson “actually gets things done,” Ryan said.
“That’s why Wisconsinites voted to send me to Washington the first time, and why I’m pretty confident they’ll send me back for a second and final term,” he said.
Early voting encourages Feingold camp
But despite Johnson’s success in chipping away at Feingold’s lead, Feingold appears equally confident he’ll win on Tuesday.
The reason why: record-setting early voting throughout the state.
That’s thanks in part to a lawsuit filed by the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, resulting in a federal judge this summer overturning laws that limited hours and locations for in-person absentee voting.
As of Monday, nearly 798,000 absentee ballots had been returned throughout the state — an increase of 21 percent from 2012. Thirty-one percent of those came from liberal Dane and Milwaukee counties.
“This early voting is off the charts in many places in the state, and it’s just clear to me that it’s going to have a good impact on Election Day. People are asserting the right to vote against the attempt to diminish it,” Feingold told reporters on Thursday.
Late surge in outside spending
As money pours into the state — supporting both candidates, but largely favoring Johnson — supporters are “withstanding it simply by getting out the vote,” Feingold said.
“Because in the end, they count votes, not dollars,” he said.
A memo from Feingold campaign manager Tom Russell said both general enthusiasm and data point to a victory for Feingold.
“After six long years of Sen. Johnson failing to represent the state, Wisconsin is ready for a leader who will fight for its middle class and working families,” Russell wrote.
That was key to Biden’s message on Friday.
Biden presented Trump and Johnson as out of touch with the middle class and said the choice voters have "could not be more stark."
"The arc of history has always been forward, and what these guys want to do is literally move it backward," Biden said.
Clinton and Feingold support raising the minimum wage, making college debt-free, establishing paid family leave and making efforts to combat climate change, Biden said.
"We have gone from crisis to recovery and we’re now on the verge of genuine resurgence," Biden said of the Obama administration, adding there's still more to be done to help middle- and working-class Americans.
Feingold and Clinton are the ones to do that, he argued.
The former senator will spend Monday visiting Democratic campaign offices in Madison, Oregon, Janesville, Racine and Oshkosh, joined by Sen. Tammy Baldwin.
"I’m talking to everybody. I’m going to the smaller towns, the larger towns, and we’re trying to get out the vote," Feingold told reporters Monday, contrasting his approach with Johnson's. "Hearing just one more speech from Paul Ryan or Scott Walker is not going to win you the election."
Polls show momentum favoring Johnson
Feingold downplayed the significance of the tightening polls last week, arguing both he and Johnson have always said it would be a close race.
“That’s exactly what it is, but I believe that we are in a better position to win, because people are voting, and the more people that vote, the better chance I have to win,” he said.
Still, there’s no denying Johnson has run an effective campaign this fall. Most of his movement in the Marquette poll has occurred since mid-September, at which point he trailed Feingold significantly in every measure surveyed by the poll.
The greatest swing in momentum for Johnson came from independent voters, 46 percent of whom said they support him over Feingold at 40 percent. Last month, independents favored Feingold by seven points over Johnson.
“I think that Johnson did do a, for a guy that had been sort of anonymous in many ways and certainly hadn’t really developed much of a brand or an image for himself over the course of the last six years … somewhere in September he actually started to finally run some positive advertising that gave some sense of why you might want to keep him in office,” said Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster who did Feingold’s polling in 2010.
Johnson succeeded in presenting himself as a businessman and an outsider, but also in showing a more compassionate side, Maslin said.
Much of Johnson’s campaign advertising this fall attempted to unveil his "softer side," highlighting his involvement with a faith-based employment program and his work to help a family adopt a child from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
At the same time, Johnson and his allies have driven a narrative aimed at undermining Feingold’s character, painting him as a Washington insider who cares more about returning to the seat than serving constituents, who has abandoned the principles that once defined him.
The Trump effect
But Maslin is still bullish on Feingold’s prospects, adding he doesn’t think the former senator has made any significant missteps during the race.
Voters took out some “ire and anger” on Feingold in 2010, he said, but Feingold is still viewed by voters more favorably than Johnson.
And while Wisconsin Republicans have a nationally renowned political operation, Maslin suggested having Trump at the top of the ticket has cut into that advantage.
“It’s not going to be 2010 all over again,” Maslin said, “but clearly they’ve had some success in bringing this race close again.”
Feingold believes Johnson’s support for Trump will cost him the race. While the Senate race is locked in a virtual tie, Clinton leads Trump by six points in Wisconsin.
And on Saturday, Trump’s campaign canceled a rally scheduled for West Allis on Sunday, leading many to speculate he has conceded defeat in the Badger State.
Wisconsin hasn’t gone for a Republican president since Ronald Reagan in 1984.
“You know, Ron Johnson wouldn’t even hire Donald Trump to work in his plastics factory. He wouldn’t let him run loose in there,” Feingold said. “But he’s willing to make him president. That’s irresponsible, and it’s going to cost him some votes, because it’s not the right thing to do.”
An underdog incumbent?
Conservative strategist Brian Fraley, who owns the communications firm Edge Messaging, said Johnson has done “almost everything right” since Labor Day.
“When national Republicans took their money elsewhere, Johnson's campaign turned it up a notch, didn't surrender, and just kept at it day after day,” Fraley said.
Fraley suggested Feingold was too confident it would be an easy race, which he said could be his undoing.
Despite being the incumbent, Johnson has succeeded in presenting himself as an outsider in comparison to Feingold’s long career in public service, having served in the state Legislature before being elected to the Senate.
“Johnson has done a good job of being his own man without upsetting Trump's true believers,” Fraley said. “Johnson is still the underdog, but he definitely has the momentum heading into Election Day. From Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump, 2016 has been the year of the outsider.”