U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold had the experience. Oshkosh businessman Ron Johnson had the message. In the end, the message won.

Johnson, 55, notched a hard-fought victory in the U.S. Senate race Tuesday night, capping what has been an expensive — and often contentious — campaign between the Republican millionaire and the 18-year Democratic Senate veteran.

Moments after the junior Senator from Wisconsin conceded, a jubilant Johnson took the stage at the EAA Air Venture Museum in Oshkosh and thanked his supporters for pushing him over the top.

"Tonight, we celebrate," he said to the more than 1,000 gathered. "Tomorrow, we start the hard work. We've dug a big hole and we have to get out of it."

Following his acceptance speech, Johnson reiterated that he is not looking to make a career out of politics. He said in the coming days he will put together a team that will quickly help turn the country back from its troubles.

"I'm not looking for people who are interested in spending six years turning this country around," he said.

The political newcomer held a substantial lead in the polls for most of the campaign. And while it seemed Feingold was able to close the gap late, the results Tuesday were undeniable.

Before Johnson took the podium, the defeated Feingold told a cheering crowd of 300 at the Marriott West in Middleton that "it's time for the next adventure."

His barely 5-minute-long farewell included a concession that "the people of Wisconsin have spoken and I respect their decision."

The Wisconsin race for the Senate was the most expensive in state history, featuring millions of dollars spent on attack ads that targeted everything from Feingold's support of the federal stimulus to Johnson's willingness to privatize part of Social Security.

Common Cause of Wisconsin estimated the total spent at $40 million to $45 million for the senate race, a record amount. Outside groups spent about

$5 million, most of that on ads opposing Feingold.

GOP surge

But it seemed the ads mattered less than the stigma attached to the nation's Capitol. Feingold, a moderate with a reputation for independence, was unable to distance himself from the problems facing Democrats across the country.

A struggling economy and persistently high unemployment gave the GOP the fuel it needed to stage massive victories Tuesday, taking back control of the U.S. House of Representatives and threatening to win the Senate.

And even though the Republicans didn't take the Senate, they now have a sizable enough minority there to pursue a series of agenda items that could change the direction of the county in the immediate future.

Johnson likely will play a role in that. The Minnesota native shocked everyone in May when he easily won the Republican Party endorsement over the well-funded Madison-area developer Terrence Wall — despite entering the race less than a week before the convention.

He toured the state, hammering Feingold for his role in the passage of health care reform and votes that added to the federal debt. He buttressed his campaign with a series of ads that depicted the candidate as a down-home regular guy who could bring common sense to Washington, D.C.

Early on, his inexperience showed in several political missteps. He angered some by waffling on whether to sell his BP stock after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, got in hot water by using the word "licenses" when referring to gun "permits" and was ridiculed for theorizing that sunspots could be responsible for global warming.

To quote Bob Dylan ...  'Typical swinging pendulum'

But none of that seemed to hurt his momentum.

"I think what we saw in the governor's race was the typical swinging pendulum of Wisconsin politics," said Mordecai Lee, UW-Milwaukee political science professor. "But in the Senate race, the national mood trumped usual state politics."

Feingold was elected to the Senate in 1992. That year the young Wisconsin state senator shocked the Democratic establishment by winning his party's nomination over attorney Joseph Checota and U.S. Rep. Jim Moody, both of whom were bigger names than Feingold.

Moody and Checota bloodied each other during their primary fight, allowing the Rhodes scholar with a populist appeal and a nice-guy image to notch an easy victory.

Feingold went on to defeat Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Kasten. He followed that with re-election victories against former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann and millionaire businessman Tim Michels.

During his tenure, Feingold developed a reputation for independence, voting against his party 887 times, standing against the war in Afghanistan, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the bank bailout and the Patriot Act. Feingold stood alone against his party 97 times — the most of any serving senator.

In his concession speech, Feingold said he called Johnson and "wished him well as our next senator" and offered the help of his staff in the transition. Then he paid a heartfelt compliment to the state, saying that "being your senator has been the greatest honor of my life."

He closed with a lyric from Bob Dylan's "Mississippi": "But my heart is not weary, it's light and it's free. I've got nothing but affection for all those who sail with me."

Contact Clay Barbour at cbarbour@madison.com or 608-252-6129; contact George Hesselberg at ghesselberg@madison.com or 608-252-6140.

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