Russ Feingold redux: Democrats’ bid to retake Senate just got stronger

Liberal former Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin wants a rematch with Sen. Ron Johnson (R). Senator Feingold's entry adds a jolt of Elizabeth Warren-Bernie Sanders-esque energy into the battle for the Senate.

Saul Loeb/Reuters/File
Russ Feingold, former US Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo, speaks during a news briefing at the Palais de la Nation in Kinshasa, May 4, 2014. Democrat Russ Feingold announced on Thursday, he will run next year for the US Senate seat from Wisconsin that he lost to Republican Ron Johnson in 2010.

Russ Feingold, once a leading Senate liberal, has made it official: He wants a rematch against Sen. Ron Johnson (R) of Wisconsin, who swept out Mr. Feingold in the tea party wave of 2010.

Feingold’s announcement Thursday that he’s running for his old seat immediately makes Wisconsin into one of the marquee Senate contests of the cycle. In presidential election years, Wisconsin leans Democratic, and Feingold is already well-known statewide, which gives him a head start in mounting a credible campaign. He served 18 years in the Senate before his 2010 defeat.

As soon as Feingold announced, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report moved Senator Johnson’s seat from “lean Republican” to “tossup.”

“Johnson has proven himself to be a staunch conservative, which may well cause him problems in a presidential election year where the composition of the electorate won't be as friendly to Republicans as it was in the 2010 midterm election,” writes Jennifer Duffy, Cook’s Senate analyst.

But, she adds, the race is “hardly a slam dunk” for Feingold. He has a voting record to defend, and the art of campaigning has changed dramatically since he left office. Ironically, Feingold is best known for the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law that sought to restrict the flow of money in politics. Now, following the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010, unrestricted money has flooded the system. 

Still, Feingold’s entry adds a jolt of Elizabeth Warren-Bernie Sanders-esque energy into the Democratic effort to retake the Senate – and if Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker wins the Republican presidential nomination, that puts an even greater spotlight on Wisconsin.

So if Governor Walker is the nominee, who benefits?

“It might be a wash,” says Ms. Duffy in an interview. “It could help Johnson, but it could also get Democrats fired up.”

On the larger battle for control of the Senate, Duffy says it’s too soon to say if it’s a 50-50 race yet.

“The Democrats are getting the candidates they need, but they need a couple more,” specifically in New Hampshire and Colorado, she says. The Republicans are still working on lining up strong candidates in Nevada and Colorado.

Overall, the Senate playing field favors the Democrats, who are defending only 10 seats to the Republicans’ 24. The GOP controls the Senate 54-46, including two independents who caucus with the Democrats. If the Democrats hold onto the White House, they will need a net gain of four seats to retake the Senate (with the vice president as the tie-breaker). If a Republican wins the presidency, the Democrats will need five seats to take control of the Senate.

In his announcement video, Feingold echoed the language of Senator Warren (D) of Massachusetts and Senator Sanders (I) of Vermont in decrying the “broken” politics of Washington and the “multi-millionaires, billionaires, and big corporations [that] are calling all the shots.”

But “actually, no one I’ve listened to says we should throw in the towel and give up, and I don’t think that either,” Feingold says. “Instead, let’s fight together for change.”

This cycle already features another potential rematch from 2010, with former Rep. Joe Sestak (D) of Pennsylvania running for his party’s nomination to challenge Sen. Pat Toomey (R). Political handicappers give Senator Toomey the edge.

And in Ohio, an old-timer – former Gov. Ted Strickland (D) – is favored to win the Democratic nomination to take on Sen. Rob Portman (R). Handicappers lean toward Senator Portman.

In other races, Democrats point to newer names stepping forward. In California, two minority women are running for the Senate seat held by retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer: state Attorney General Kamala Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez, who is expected to announce on Thursday. In Nevada, national Democrats are backing former state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto in the race to replace retiring Sen. Harry Reid.

Still, Democrats are keenly aware that they need to develop their bench, as stated in the party’s “autopsy” following the losses of the 2014 midterms. Most critically, Democrats lost big in state legislative races – the prime training ground for candidates for higher office.  

But Democrats are thrilled that Feingold is back in the hunt. Moments after he announced, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) slammed him as a “career politician.”

“After decades in politics, Feingold’s ego still can’t grasp that he was soundly defeated by Oshkosh job creator Ron Johnson in 2010,” said NRSC communications director Andrea Bozek. “Wisconsin families rejected Feingold’s broken promises and his liberal record once and they are going to do it again.”

Johnson was the chief executive of a plastics manufacturer in Oshkosh, Wis., before mounting his first campaign in 2010. Now he needs to show that victory wasn’t a fluke. Early polls look promising for Feingold. A Marquette Law School poll in early April showed him beating Johnson 54 to 38. The Democratic firm Public Policy Polling had Feingold ahead 52 to 38 in early March.

Analysts note that it’s rare for a senator to successfully avenge a defeat. The last time that occurred was in 1934, when Rhode Island Democrat Peter Gerry retook his seat from the man who beat him six years earlier, according to The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report. 

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