The Associated Press' Liz Sidoti reports that Sen. Russ Feingold has found himself in an unexpectedly tough race for re-election:
The Wisconsin Democrat faces a wealthy political newcomer with early backing from tea party activists in a state that has many independent voters and is known for doing its own thing. ... The Republican seemingly came out of nowhere when he won the state GOP convention -- and the party endorsement -- just days after getting in the race. He all but cleared the primary field. Only businessman Dave Westlake, a long shot in the September primary, remains.
Ron Johnson is the likely Republican nominee, and Public Policy Polling (PPP) has him at a mere two points behind Feingold, with 43 percent supporting Johnson and 45 percent supporting Feingold. Frankly, this is astounding: Feingold is a nationally known and recognized three-term senator, and Johnson is a little-known businessman. For him to be within the margin of error is a sign of real weakness on Feingold's part. PPP's analysis bears this out: 42 percent of Wisconsin voters disapprove of Feingold's performance, and when matched against him, more voters supported Johnson (or his primary opponent, Dave Westlake) than had an opinion of either of the other candidates.
It's unclear why Wisconsin voters are so unhappy with Feingold; Wisconsin, having voted for Democrats in seven of the last 10 presidential elections, is reliably Democratic, and according to PPP, voters in the state are still happy with their senior Democrat, Sen. Herb Kohl. High unemployment is most likely to blame. The state's joblessness rate has hovered around 8.5 percent for the last 18 months, and Feingold is probably bearing the brunt of voter dissatisfaction with the government's efforts (or lack thereof) to help the economy (though why this isn't affecting Kohl is unclear).
That said, Feingold isn't in terrible shape; he has far more experience with statewide campaigning than either of his opponents, $11.3 million in the bank, and the advantage of unified Democratic support. What's more, Johnson's rhetoric and views -- he has called the Affordable Care Act "the greatest assault on our freedom in my lifetime" -- are likely off-putting to Wisconsin voters, half of whom identify themselves as moderate or liberal. At the end of the day, Feingold is probably in a good position to recover lost ground.
-- Jamelle Bouie