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Politics & Government

Feingold, Johnson Rematch Expected to be Among the Most-Watched Senate Races

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The outcome of next year’s battle between former senator Russ Feingold and incumbent Ron Johnson could determine which party controls the U.S. Senate.

The contest will be a rematch of 2010, when Johnson ousted Feingold.

Wisconsin first sent Feingold to the Senate in 1992. The Democrat was perhaps best known for shepherding through bipartisan campaign finance reform, and casting the lone “no” vote against the Patriot Act, after the 9-11 attacks.

Feingold served three terms, until Republican Ron Johnson, a wealthy Oshkosh business owner, won the office in November 2010. It was two years into Barack Obama’s presidency, and the country remained in the grips of the Great Recession. Johnson was among the Republicans campaigning against the president’s record.

“We need to restore fiscal sanity to this nation. Certainly one of the ways we can restore fiscal sanity is to repeal the health care bill,” Johnson said at his victory party.

The same evening, in Feingold’s concession speech, he promised supporters he would not disappear from the political landscape.

“I hope and I intend to continue to work with all of you in future as much as possible. It’s on to the next fight,” Feingold said.

Feingold remained in public service, as an envoy to Africa for president Obama. Yet the former senator stayed largely out of the public eye. That changed, with his campaign announcement on Thursday.

“My desire to serve is stronger than ever,” Feingold said in a video to supporters. He added: “People tell me all the time that our politics in Washington are broken and that multi-millionaires, billionaires, and big corporations are calling all the shots.” Feingold says he’d restore independence and bipartisanship to the Senate.

Sen. Johnson’s campaign website labels Feingold a career politician, who would contribute to Washington’s problems.

Johnson has made a name for himself as chair of the Senate homeland security committee. He’s championed border security, and called on the United States to better protect itself from terrorist threats.

Johnson also touted his reputation in an interview posted on YouTube in February, asking: “Do you want to send (to Washington) somebody like myself who’s a citizen legislator, somebody who comes from the private sector, understands it’s in the private sector where long-lasting, self-sustaining, good-paying jobs are really created?”

UW-Madison political science professor David Canon notes that both candidates are trying to portray the other as the political insider. He thinks their campaigns also will focus on the economy, national security and the Affordable Care Act, with Johnson weighing in firmly on the right, and Feingold, on the left.

Canon expects the issues to evolve over the months, in the wake of national and global events.

“Say there’s another major economic crisis, there could be another terrorist attack. Any one of those things could emerge as a top issue that right now we’re not thinking of,” Canon says.

What may be more notable than the issues, however, is the timing of the race. That’s according to Christopher Murray, of Marquette University’s Les Aspin Center for Government in Washington, DC. Murray says the contest will take place in a presidential election year, likely favoring Feingold.

“Midterm elections advantage Republican candidates and presidential elections advantage Democratic candidates, by virtue of who the different types of people are who show up,” Murray says.

Murray says the other factor of note in the race is how it fits into the national political picture. Republicans grabbed control of the Senate last year by just a few seats. Johnson’s is expected to be one of six that Democrats pursue in 2016.

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