Feb. 11, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Feingold Couldn’t Re-Create ’92 Magic

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Feingold and Johnson square off in an October debate in Milwaukee.

“Apple Pie” and “Family” have received some recognition because the bio spots mocked typical campaign ads for their over-the-top wholesomeness. But “57” may go down as Johnson’s signature ad of the cycle. 

The spot featured Johnson and a white board pointing out the number of lawyers in the Senate (57) compared with the number of manufacturers (zero) and accountants (one). Feingold is a lawyer; Johnson is both a manufacturer and an accountant.

“It simplified the race for a lot of people,” according to Mark Graul, a former adviser to then-Rep. Mark Green (R).

The candidates spent well over $10 million each in what will go down as the most expensive Senate race in Wisconsin history, with Feingold asking the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to stay out of the race.

National Vs. Local

Not only did Feingold struggle to maintain his independent image, he struggled with independent voters.

In 2008, Obama won independents in Wisconsin 58 percent to 39 percent and won the state by more than a dozen points. This year, Feingold lost independents
56 percent to 43 percent and lost the race by 5 points. 

“Johnson’s message of a career politician, big government spending, too many taxes and too much spending resonated with these independent voters,” said Madison-based lobbyist Scott Tyre, who worked for former Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.). 

Feingold’s struggle with independent voters mirrored Democratic problems nationwide, and a closer look at this year’s elections in Wisconsin begs the question of whether this race had anything to do with the Senator. 

Not only did Feingold lose re-election, but Republicans captured the governorship for the first time in eight years and took over both chambers of the Legislature in a state where residents can vote a straight party ticket, a process allowed in fewer than 20 states.

A county-by-county analysis revealed that even though Johnson and GOP gubernatorial nominee Scott Walker had very different résumés and ran distinct campaigns, their percentages of the vote were nearly the same. The two Republicans ran within 2 points of each other in 67 counties and only 3 points apart in the remaining five.

In his first television ad, Feingold recalled some of Wisconsin’s past Senatorial stalwarts, including Gaylord Nelson (D). After three terms in the Senate, Nelson was unseated by then-Rep. Kasten in the Republican wave of 1980. Feingold’s time in the Senate came to a similar close. 

There was clearly an electoral wave that took over the country and the state, but Johnson was the right candidate at the right time and ran a great campaign. He took a risk by challenging Feingold’s strength, and it paid off.

One Democratic strategist summed it up, calling Feingold “an icon” and adding: “Fiscally conservative. Went against the grain. None of these qualities seemed to connect with voters. What he was was an incumbent.”

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