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Rating Change: Wisconsin Senate Race Moves to Democratic Column

GOP Sen. Ron Johnson is the slight underdog against ex-Sen. Russ Feingold

Polls show Sen. Ron Johnson, left, shown here speaking with former Attorney General Michael Mukasey outside of the Senate Republicans' lunch in April, trailing challenger Russ Feingold, whom Johnson defeated in 2010. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Polls show Sen. Ron Johnson, left, shown here speaking with former Attorney General Michael Mukasey outside of the Senate Republicans' lunch in April, trailing challenger Russ Feingold, whom Johnson defeated in 2010. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson is one of the most vulnerable senators in the country, and it’s not just because Donald Trump will be the GOP’s presidential nominee.  

Some Republicans are emboldened by considerable gains in the Badger State during midterm elections (including Johnson’s 52-47 percent victory over Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold in 2010) and are confident in their data operation after Gov. Scott Walker’s multiple election victories. But other GOP strategists can’t remember the party winning a significant statewide race in a presidential year since President Ronald Reagan’s re-election in 1984.  

Feingold is running again and Johnson would have had a difficult re-election race even if Republicans had nominated a less controversial candidate for president.  

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Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call race ratings

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Feingold has 18 years of votes for Republicans to criticize and Johnson’s team will try to portray the former senator as the incumbent, since he has served in office longer than his opponent. Johnson’s lower name identification (for an incumbent) gives him an opportunity to introduce himself to voters but it also allows Democrats to paint him as out-of-touch and too conservative.  

Feingold’s fundraising has been good ($6.4 million on hand as of March 31), while Johnson had $5.5 million and can spend his own money to make up the difference (although he looks unlikely to do that). Both the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee reserved $2 million in television advertising for the fall.  

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Will the Chamber Spend on Ron Johnson This Fall?

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It’s true that Johnson has defeated Feingold once before, but it wouldn’t be unprecedented for the Democrat to win a rematch. For example, Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen lost the New Hampshire Senate race to Republican John Sununu in the 2002 midterm elections and came back to defeat Sununu in the 2008 presidential cycle.  

Right now, all of the polling data points to anything from a narrow to significant lead for Feingold.  

An April 12-15 poll by St. Norbert College had Feingold up by 10 percentage points while a March 30-April 3 poll by the Emerson College Polling Society had him up by 4 points. Feingold led by 9 points in a March 28-29 poll by Loras College, and by 7 points in a March 28-29 automated Public Policy Polling survey. And a March 24-28 poll by Marquette University Law School gave the former senator a 3-point lead.  

Those may not all be among the most authoritative polling firms in the country, but it is a set of five surveys from five different pollsters who show the same thing: Feingold has a narrow edge.  

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Feingold Outraised Johnson, but Wisconsin Candidates Close in Cash on Hand

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We’re changing the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call rating from Tossup to Tilts Democratic . The race certainly isn’t over, but the current and historical data show that Johnson is at least a slight underdog.  


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