By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 5:34 PM
In the beginning of 2010, Russell Feingold's Senate seat seemed sturdy. His historically progressive home state of Wisconsin - settled by earnest abolitionist Germans and developed by New Dealers who instituted the nation's first state income tax - had elected only Democratic senators since 1992.
Feingold had handily won three terms. His voting record reflected an independent-mindedness, a predictable unpredictability. He cast the lone Democratic vote against halting Bill Clinton's impeachment proceedings, the lone Senate vote against the Patriot Act, then partnered with Sen. John McCain for the campaign-finance-reforming McCain-Feingold Bill.
But in the past several months, Feingold's campaign has become vulnerable to the Democratic incumbent fatigue endemic to the nation. He has become a symbolic figure of wasteful spending - despite voting against the Wall Street bailout - and his 18 years of service, however independent or maverickish, are increasingly perceived as 18 years of Washington Insiderness.
Enter Ron Johnson, a candidate with folksy, low-tech whiteboard ads, who made his fortune Benjamin Braddock-style, in plastics.
Johnson was a political no-name, an Oshkosh manufacturer who arrived on the political scene last fall when he was invited to speak at a tea party rally. He entered the race just six months before the September primaries, won the endorsements of the state GOP and then, after injecting $4.4 million of his own funds into his campaign, won the primaries, too. Johnson raised about $3.3 million in the third quarter of 2010, compared with Feingold's $4.2 million.
The latest polls have Johnson leading an average of 7.7 points, despite a recent Michelle Obama-headlined fundraiser on Feingold's behalf. He has built his campaign on a promises to balance the budget and repeal 2009's health-care law - calling it an "assault" on "freedom" - which Feingold still touts as a proud accomplishment.
One voter, Alex Elman, a junior economics and political science major at the University of Wisconsin, explains how he got swept up in the Obamania of 2008, crossing party lines to vote for him, and how, just as dizzily, he fell out of love.
"You want a candidate who can connect. Obama connected," Elman said. "He said that it wasn't red states or blue states but the United States. But he was hypocritical. He was saying that, but he was only supporting Democrats."
Elman considers himself socially progressive--on issues like abortion and gay marriage, he would just as soon the government not insert itself. "But I vote with my wallet," he said.
On occasion, Wisconsin lives up to the Doncha-Know Dairy Wonderland reputation the rest of the country has bestowed upon it. On one recent day, a story in the Wisconsin Farm Report blog announced that the proceeds from Green County Cheese Days would all go to charity. But another story, in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, recounted one neighborhood's efforts to free itself from crime and widespread foreclosures - tales all too common across the country.
The winner of this election inherits these economic issues. The outcome decides whether Wisconsin's recent liberal traditions will stay the course or make a right turn.