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Six years ago Ron Johnson came out of nowhere to beat three-term U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, a Republican victory that chipped away at the Democratic majority before the GOP took control in 2014.
Now Democrats are looking to Wisconsin, and Feingold yet again, in the hopes that a rematch victory will help them regain the majority.
Democrats, and Feingold, have reasons to be confident. Polls have consistently shown Feingold ahead in the race and Republicans traditionally fare worse in Wisconsin in presidential years because turnout favors Democrats.
But in a year when Donald Trump’s presidential run has shaken up expectations, Johnson’s team argues against reading too much into the data. They insist the race is heading in their direction in the final days, saying their voter outreach effort will be part of the difference maker on Election Day.
“No one will outhustle Ron and this team,” his campaign manager said in a memo to supporters on Oct. 23. “Ron’s been underestimated before, and smart observers would be wise not to do so again.”
But Feingold was all smiles and brimming with confidence when he cast his ballot just over two weeks before the election, saying that Johnson’s decision to label him as a “phony” showed the incumbent was becoming desperate.
In an Associated Press interview, Feingold said his pitch to undecided voters is that he’s on the side of middle income and working families on the key issues.
“It’s real clear I’m the candidate who’s likely to vote with middle income working families, on everything from minimum wage to family leave to prescription medicine to student loans,” Feingold said.
Johnson argues that Feingold is an out-of-touch “career politician” who wants nothing more than to return to Washington where he served as a senator for 18 years.
“Every type of plan that Senator Feingold has is going to grow government and when we grow government, just like night follows day, government’s going to demand more of your hard-earned money, going to take more of your freedom,” Johnson told AP. “I actually want to limit government to those enumerated powers and I want to make sure that Wisconsinites keep more of their heard-earned money.”
Johnson has emphasized his experience creating jobs and building the Oshkosh plastics manufacturing company Pacur before winning election to the Senate, saying that real-life experience sets him apart from Feingold. Johnson said in one of the debates that “I am the working man.”
Feingold has tried to turn Johnson’s business background against him, painting him as an out-of-touch millionaire who accepted $10 million in deferred compensation before leaving the company to join the Senate.
Both Johnson and Feingold are battling the tides of history.
Due in part to the larger Democratic turnout, no Republican has been elected senator in Wisconsin in a presidential year since 1980.
But just as daunting for Feingold, no former senator has won a rematch against the person who defeated them since 1934.
And former senators have only won election to return to the Senate twice in the past 60 years.
Millions of dollars in advertising, both from the candidates and outside groups, has poured into the state. Political action committees have spent six times as much to help Johnson over Feingold: $8.9 million to $1.4 million, based on a tally by the Center for Responsive Politics.
The two candidates combined have spent more than $28 million on the race.
The presidential race has loomed large.
Feingold repeatedly called on Johnson to join other Republicans in revoking his support for Trump. Johnson refused. Likewise, Feingold has stood by his description of Hillary Clinton as “honest and trustworthy,” even though Wisconsin polls have consistently shown voters don’t see her that way.
But Feingold has also emphasized his independence, sticking by his vote against the Patriot Act following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He was the only senator to oppose it.
“I didn’t do what the Democrats wanted me to do on it or Republicans,” Feingold said. “I did what Wisconsinites want, to do your job and actually look at the legislation and decide whether it could be better and it definitely needed to be improved.”
Johnson has pledged not to seek a third term should he win.
“I will be the calmest guy on my election night because I win either way,” Johnson said in a line often used throughout the campaign and repeated in a radio interview two weeks before the election. “I either go back to my life that I love that I miss, or I can fight again and go back to Washington.”
Libertarian Phil Anderson is also on the ballot.