To assess the state of the race at this early stage and Feingold’s viability we must look at his past performances. First elected in 1992 Feingold was the beneficiary of the GOP putting up a weak candidate. He was also helped by Bill Clinton’s 5% victory in the state. Feingold carried it by 6%. In 1998, Feingold faced a serious challenge from then Congressman Mark Nuemann. He won by less than 2%. Feingold’s best showing by far came in 2004 when he faced a weak GOP opponent. Feingold won with 55% even as John Kerry barely carried the state by 11,000 votes.
Fast forward to 2010 however and a bad political climate for Democrats and Feingold turned into toast. His weaknesses with voters in prior campaigns were made clear and he lost by almost 5%. Just what are these weaknesses? Let’s explore shall we.
First off, Democratic strength in the state is largely based on two counties, Dane and Milwaukee. Feingold’s strength in all his campaigns has been no different. But while these two counties are strong for Democrats the rest of SE Wisconsin (Waukesha, Washington and Ozaukee) are strong GOP areas. Balancing out Dane County is GOP strength in the NE part of the state which is covered by the Green Bay media market (Brown, Outagamie and Winnebago counties.
The swing area of the state is the Northwest. These counties are made up of largely rural and moderate voters. In both 1998 and 2010 Feingold struggled among rural voters in the Northwest and suburban voters in the Northeast. Indeed, Feingold won only four counties in the NE in 2010 compared to Obama’s carrying of all but three counties in the region. Feingold will have to perform much more strongly with these voters in 2016 to win.
Feingold’s 2010 campaign underscored another weakness. He is a poor campaigner. In 1992 and 2004 this factor was kept to a minimum against weak challengers. But in 1998 and 201o it was laid bare. In the 2010 campaign Feingold refused to take money from SuperPAC’s and allowed himself to be overwhelmed with Johnson’s and outside groups spending. He also struggled to find an effective message on the stump and constantly found himself defending his record instead of using it to his advantage. Come 2016 Feingold needs to find a reason why he should be brought back for another term.
The last point is one Feingold can do little about. There is not much about Feingold to get excited about for the party base. He’s a white male and a career politician and even his crusade on campaign finance is unlikely to change such an image. In 2010 he was raked over the coals with this attack line and he didn’t respond.
Fortunately for Feingold he does have some things going for him. He starts the race with excellent name identification numbers as well as strong favorability ratings. Second, he leads Johnson in early polls. Third, presidential turnout in the state since 2004 has aided the party more than in midterm cycles recently. Lastly, he seems to have learned from his mistakes and is willing to take outside money.
But learning from past mistakes and early polling leads does not guarantee victory. Johnson has recently ramped up his fundraising and is raising his profile on national security in a bid to appeal to moderates. Feingold will need to find a way to counter this and make the narrative of the race about the incumbent and not him.