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Unlikely battleground of Wisconsin reflects Democrats' vulnerability in midterm elections
So they are trying to convince skeptical voters that Democratic economic policies, such as the $814 billion stimulus package, are working, although not as fast as anyone would like; to blame the Republicans for having caused the problem in the first place; and to warn of the consequences of a return to those policies.
If voters are dismissive of Democrats, polls show that they aren't exactly sold on Republicans, either, given memories of how the party governed the last time it was in power.
In coming weeks, House Republican leader John A. Boehner (Ohio), the speaker in waiting, plans to unveil a blueprint of what his party would do if it regains a majority. But it is not clear whether that message will have much impact, or even whether Republican candidates will want to line up behind it. Many GOP campaign consultants are advising their candidates simply to stay on the attack and avoid getting tripped up by deep discussions of issues and policy.
Although the parties are trying to set the broad themes of this election, it is also a collection of unique contests: for all 435 House seats, as well as for 37 governorships and 36 Senate seats.
"There's a big wave coming," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "The question is, are individual candidates building high enough walls to protect themselves from that wave?"
Wisconsin was not a place where Democrats had anticipated a breach. Obama carried the state by 14 points in 2008, and it has sent only Democrats to the Senate since Feingold's first election, in 1992. The senator is also known for his independence from his party. He opposed Obama's decision to send more troops to Iraq and a financial regulatory bill that he said did not go far enough.
But Wisconsin has traditionally been closely divided political territory, Feingold said; he is in trouble in large part because voters associate him with their frustration about the economy and the mess in Washington. "It's a classic purple state," Feingold said. "It will always be affected by national trends either way."
Feingold's probable Republican challenger, who jumped into the race in May and is favored to win the party primary on Sept. 14, seems well cast for a year in which claims of political inexperience are often an asset.
"Sixteen weeks ago, I was you. I am you," business executive Ron Johnson told a few dozen Rotary Club members last week in the Milwaukee suburb of Mequon.
This particular everyman, however, is a multimillionaire plastics manufacturer who already has spent $4 million on television advertising, nearly three times more than Feingold has.
Yet for all that is going against the Democrats this year, they have some advantages.
One difference from 1994 is that this time they saw early on what was coming. Feingold has built a formidable campaign operation, with 16 field offices and a vast network of workers.