Feingold to seek his old Senate seat in what could be a marquee matchup in ’16

Minnesota won’t have a U.S. Senate race next year, but we will have front-row seats for the Feingold-Johnson contest.

Former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, a liberal Democrat and a leading crusader for reform of the money-in-politics mess, has confirmed that he will seek his old Senate seat next year in a rematch with first-term Republican incumbent Ron Johnson.

Feingold, who won four Senate terms starting in 1992, was defeated in 2010, 52-47 percent, by political newcomer Johnson, an Oshkosh businessman and multimillionaire, and, as things stand now, Feingold will likely be running against Johnson next year. Feingold will be 63. Johnson will be 61.

You might think Wisconsin is trending strongly Republican because of all the attention Gov. Scott Walker has received for his election and re-election, his successful defeat of the effort to recall him, and his current high standing in polls for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. But don’t overlook the last Senate election in which Democrat Tammy Baldwin defeated long-time Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson by a solid 51-46 percent margin.

Minnesota won’t have a U.S. Senate race next year, but we will have front-row seats for the Feingold-Johnson contest, a race that could be one of the marquee matchups of 2016. In 2016, Democrats need a net gain of either four or five seats (depending on which party controls the vice-presidency) to take control from the Republicans, who gained control in 2014 with a huge nine-seat gain.

But, as I wrote last year right after the big Repub gains, pretty much all of the factors that led to those gains will favor a big Dem pickup in 2016. Charlie Cook, relying on the same set of factors, wrote on Monday that the 2016 map heavily favors the Dems.

Next round favors Democrats

As you know, the staggered nature of Senate elections puts a different third of the states into play every cycle. The last map heavily favored the Repubs because it featured more seats (by 21-14) held by Democrats than Republicans, which means more pickup opportunities for Republicans. The next cycle (barring any deaths or resignations that add to the list) is tilted the other way, only more so, with 24 seats (including Ron Johnson’s) on the ballot, compared to just 10 seats currently held by Democrats.

In addition, the location of the seats helps the Dems even more. In search for seats that are likely to flip from one party to the other, the pundits generally start with the list of seats in which the incumbent senator is from Party A, but the state gave its electoral votes to Party B in the last presidential election. In 2014, seven seats, held by the Dems, were on the ballot in states that Mitt Romney had carried in 2012, and most them were in states that Romney carried by double-digit margins. In fact, the Repubs picked up all seven of those seats, which constituted the majority of the overall nine-seat gain that enabled them take over majority status.

Of the 24 currently-Repub-held-seats that will be on the ballot in 2016, seven of them (including Wisconsin) are states that went blue for Obama in both 2008 and 2012.

Of the 10 states that have races in 2016 for Senate seats that are currently held by Democrats, not a single one was carried by the Republican presidential nominee in either of the last two elections.

In short, if every state that went blue in the last two presidential elections were to elect a Democrat to the Senate in 2016, and every state that went red in the presidential elections were to elect a Republican Senate candidate, the Dems would have a net pickup of seven seats and would take control.

Higher turnout

And there’s one more factor that, like all of those above, has nothing to do with the actual identities of the candidates. 2016 will be a presidential election year. Turnout in presidential election years is reliably about 20 percentage points higher than in midterm elections. Democrats generally get more benefit from high turnout than do Republicans (and vice versa).

I wouldn’t bet the farm on Feingold defeating Johnson. The track record of defeated former senators coming back for a rematch against the person who ousted them is not that great. But it will be big surprise if Democrats don’t make substantial gains in the Senate races of 2016.

I headlined my December 2014 piece “Republicans face serious barriers to holding U.S. Senate majority in 2016.” I’ll stand by that. Cook’s piece of earlier this week was headlined: “Handicapping a Democratic Takeover; The 2016 Senate cycle is shaping up to be the opposite of 2014, with the map heavily stacked against the GOP.”

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Comments (26)

  1. Submitted by Mike Worcester on 05/14/2015 - 12:30 pm.

    Slight Correction

    Sen. Feingold was running for his fourth term when he was defeated in 2010 (1992, 1998, 2004).

    Otherwise, agreed this will be a great race to watch and see if our Neighbors to the East have truly changed their electoral outlook and voting patterns.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/14/2015 - 01:47 pm.

    It will be nice

    to have another real progressive in the Senate.
    Wisconsin has an honorable history (La Follete comes to mind).

    • Submitted by Ken Bearman on 05/14/2015 - 02:53 pm.

      Yes, it would be nice

      But Wisconsin also has a dishonorable history: “Tail-Gunner Joe” McCarthy, creator of McCarthyism and a sordid political era.

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 05/14/2015 - 05:07 pm.

        The little detail that people forget

        McCarthy was right.

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/15/2015 - 11:39 am.

          But not

          The list was blank.

          Recommended viewing/reading:
          Arthur Miller — ‘The Crucible’.
          now playing at the Guthrie and very well done (unsolicited plug).

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 05/14/2015 - 02:02 pm.

    More evidence

    that the “progressives” are looking forward to the 1990s.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/14/2015 - 03:24 pm.

      Which is still better

      than the conservatives, who are looking forward to the 1890s.

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 05/14/2015 - 05:10 pm.

        I could be wrong

        but it’s probably a good idea if someone running in your party is not collecting social security. And freedom is never an old idea.

        • Submitted by jason myron on 05/14/2015 - 07:19 pm.

          The GOP’s sudden obsession with age

          is fascinating to me. I don’t remember hearing these objections back when they were enthusiastically voting for a 70 year old Reagan.

      • Submitted by jason myron on 05/14/2015 - 05:18 pm.

        Or think back wistfully

        to the Reagan era as their Holy Grail.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/14/2015 - 05:16 pm.

      Maybe because

      things were better then.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/14/2015 - 07:04 pm.

      But who wouldn’t want another round of the 2000’s–

      –a war on terror that grew more terrorists
      –two wars that lost the peace
      –a big heap of unconstitutional acts
      –the worst economic recession ever
      –enormous increase in debt

      Gee, sounds like fun!!

      Why can’t we have another Republican era ?

  4. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 05/14/2015 - 06:44 pm.

    The geriatric ticket

    Clinton and Feingold. We’re getting the band back together!

    • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 05/14/2015 - 08:12 pm.

      Big deal – Feingold is 2 years older

      Than fat-cat millionaire Johnson, who by the way has accomplished nothing in the Senate.

    • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 05/15/2015 - 05:53 pm.

      Is this the same Senator

      From McCain-Feingold? The law that cured the influence of big money in campaigns? Anyone want to hazard a guess on how much the former Senator spends on the campaign (and has spent on his behalf)?

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/16/2015 - 10:12 am.

        At least

        they tried.
        Since the law was gutted in Congress, they had no choice but to campaign according to the rules in effect — to do otherwise would have been political suicide.

  5. Submitted by Jay Willemssen on 05/15/2015 - 07:59 pm.

    Age? What a silly argument.

    If Feingold were in the Senate now, he’d be the 50th oldest senator – right in the middle. He’s younger than 24 Republican senators and the last two Republican presidential candidates.

    Better arguments, please.

    • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 05/15/2015 - 09:41 pm.


      That this is a response to my post, do you have any factoids about Democrats? Also, there was no argument presented, geriatric is descriptive but is no way meant to be a negative. Remember Reagan’s famous remark about Walter Mondale’s inexperience…

      But, as long as you mention it, think about the statement “If Feingold were in the Senate now, he’d be the 50th oldest senator “.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/16/2015 - 03:13 pm.

        A professional

        Reagan was good at reading script cards.

        • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/17/2015 - 08:37 pm.

          Except in the second term…..

          an anecdote from CBS News’ Lesely Stahl, who was a White House correspondent for the first six years of Reagan’s presidency, who wrote in her book about saying goodbye to Reagan in the Oval Office on her last day on the job. An aide insisted Stahl was forbidden from asking Reagan questions or reporting on what she saw. She explained in her book what she saw:

          Reagan was as shriveled as a kumquat. He was so frail, his skin was so paper-thin, I could almost see the sunlight through the back of his withered neck. His bony hands were dotted with age spots, one bleeding into another. His eyes were coated. Larry introduced us, but he had to shout. Had Reagan turned off his hearing aid?

          “Mr. President!” he bellowed. “This is Lesley Stahl.” He said it slowly. “Of CBS, and her husband, Aaron Latham.”

          Reagan didn’t seem to know who I was. He gave me a distant look with those milky eyes and shook my hand weakly. Oh, my, he’s gonzo, I thought. I have to go on the lawn tonight and tell my countrymen that the president of the United States is a space cadet. My heart began to hammer with the import. As the White House photographer snapped pictures of us — because this was a photo-op — I was aware of the delicacy with which I would have to write my script. But I was quite sure of the diagnosis.

          Larry was shouting again, instructing the president to hand us some souvenirs. Cuff links, a White House tie tack. I felt the necessity to fill the silence. “This is my daughter, Mr. President,” I said. “Taylor. She’s eight.” He barely responded but for a little head tilt.

          Click. Click. More pictures. A flash. “When I covered Jimmy Carter,” I said, “Taylor used to tell everyone that the president worked for her mommy. But from the day you moved in here, she began saying, ‘My mommy works for the president.'” I wasn’t above a little massaging. Was he so out of it that couldn’t appreciate a sweet story that reflected well on him? Guess so. His pupils didn’t even dilate. Nothing. No reaction.

          These experiences were not uncommon. In his second term, it was routine for Reagan to forget the names of his top generals and cabinet secretaries. His wife was seen whispering answers to questions in his ear. By any reasonable measure, Reagan’s mental acuity was failing well before his presidency ended.


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