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Why Sen. Russ Feingold is trailing in Wisconsin polls

Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin has been easily elected to the Senate three times before. But the political climate this year has made this race much closer.

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In this Oct. 12 photo, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis. participates in a seniors roundtable event, in Wausau, Wis.

Morry Gash/AP/File

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By all accounts, Russ Feingold should not be in the political fight of his life this campaign season.

The Democratic senator from Wisconsin, whose name is synonymous with campaign finance reform, has been easily elected three times before. He is one of a handful of senators who can say they voted against invading Iraq, and he was the only senator who voted against the Patriot Act in 2001 – positions that have traditionally worked well in his home state, which favors independence outside Washington.

Yet this campaign is turning into the most difficult of his career. Like many Democrats, he is facing an opponent who was unknown to most voters before this summer but is now outpacing him in the polls. According to Pollster.com, which aggregates the leading national and local polls, Ron Johnson (R) is leading Senator Feingold, 50.8 percent to 44.6 percent.

The turn of events fits in with the larger issues confronting Democratic candidates, says Charles Franklin, a co-founder of Pollster.com who teaches political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Mr. Johnson’s unexpected ascendancy in the polls “has a lot more to do with national revulsion against Democrats” this political season, especially when it comes to issues such as fiscal responsibility, Mr. Franklin says.

Feingold, in fact, squared off against a similar candidate during the 2004 election cycle, Franklin says (although that race wasn’t close). The earlier opponent, Tim Michels, had private-sector credentials and a platform that are nearly “identical” to Johnson’s, Franklin says. Johnson is an Oshkosh businessman who has spent more than $4 million of his own money in the campaign.

What makes the 2010 race different is the political climate. “It seems to me that there’s very little new in the set of issues that Johnson brings to the table, but the state is far more receptive to the argument that businessmen are best in creating jobs than big government,” says Franklin.

Wisconsin has medium-sized cities that are buffered by pockets of dairy farms and lakeside vacation towns – a combination that is credited for the state’s live-and-let-live attitude when it comes to social issues.

The Badger State also has a lengthy progressive streak. Not only has Milwaukee been led by three Socialist mayors over the past 100 years, but the state’s Republican leadership has embraced measures that put it at odds with the national party. One example: former Gov. Tommy Thompson’s expansion of health care for the working poor.

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Yet Wisconsin’s progressive political character is on the verge of becoming “ancient history” because of its current economic crisis, says John McAdams, who teaches political science at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

Like other places, the state has struggled with high unemployment. And the manufacturing base has shrunk following the departure of signature brands like MillerCoors, which moved to Chicago in 2008. Harley-Davidson, which opened its doors in Milwaukee in 1903, announced this year it was considering relocating outside the state because of labor costs.

According to Mr. McAdams, Wisconsin’s economic troubles have bolstered Johnson’s message, which blames Washington spending and mismanagement for harming Main Street businesses and jobs. Johnson has said that if elected senator, his two priorities will be to repeal the national health-care bill and to place caps on government spending.

“When people don’t perceive the economy is going well, that always favors the outsider,” McAdams says.

Feingold tarnished his maverick image as a fiscal conservative by voting for President Obama’s health-care reform and stimulus packages, says JR Ross, editor of WisPolitics, an online media outlet that covers state news.

“Those votes, combined with the current economic atmosphere, undercut his image as a good steward of public dollars,” says Mr. Ross. “He defended those votes by saying they were necessary, but when people seem so angry about spending and debt, that’s not a good thing for him.”

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