Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold is facing the prospect of a brutal beatdown next Tuesday in Wisconsin. In theory, given how competitive other Democrats have managed to keep their races, particularly against newcomers, why has Feingold's race taken a different course?
Start from the sociological point: beer. Milwaukee. The Tavern League is a huge lobbying force. The Democratic base in the state is compromised of what Ron Brownstein calls "beer track Democrats": blue collar voters, ethnic whites who tolerate government when it helps but recoil from it when it seems intrusive and wasteful. They tend to be older. Sporadic and infrequent Democratic voters in the state come from the university towns like Madison. Wisconsin has had an unusually high rate of young voter participation, a trend that dates back to the mid-90s. People forget that Barack Obama won the state in the primaries, and that Democrats since Michael Dukakis have kept it in the blue column in presidential races. It's hard to argue that voters in Wisconsin are Democrats simply by habit. But at the same time, Democrats took back the state legislature only last year, and Feingold has never been reluctant to admit that he takes positions that are somewhat out of sync with his state. But culturally, he's one of them. Balanced budgets. Gun rights. And a beer drinker.
Younger college-town Democrats and older habitual Democratic voters are clashing this year on entitlement spending; younger Democrats see the health care reform law and the stimulus package as down payments on their future. Older Democrats see it as a waste of money. This trend plays itself out culturally, too
Beer-track Democrats tend to be the toughest to turn out this cycle. White men without college degrees have grasped onto economic libertarianism as a way out of the fiscal mess. And younger Democrats simply aren't turning out.
Feingold has done everything he can to remedy this. Unlike many Democrats, he's run as an unabashed champion of health care, the stimulus, energy reform, and progressive cultural advancement.
Enter Ron Johnson. He has a solid up-from-the-bootstraps story. An accountant by training, he made his money in plastics -- rather, he benefited from his wife's family money in plastics, but to be fair, he's his own guy. He has a nice-looking family. He's a job creator. And he just kind of fell into the race. He had written an essay on health care reform, and it was picked up by a local conservative talk radio host. The essay went viral.
Friends encouraged Johnson to run. He did, pouring his own money into the race, much to the delight of national Republicans. To Democrats, he's indistinguishable from other Tea-Party-supported candidates because he has a habit of speaking his mind. He doesn't self-censor. Like other Senate candidates, he's realized that he can win an election without talking too much to the mainstream press. One Green Bay newspaper endorsed him, and then met with him, and then withdrew the endorsement. He doesn't seem to know much about policy.
To be sure, some of his positions are probably to the right of the average Wisconsin voter. But compared to Feingold, the contrast is very clear: a Washington insider who supports the Democratic agenda and a genial businessman who's never been to Washington. Voters this year are in a mood. That mood is reflected in their willingness to take chances on newcomers without political experience. Fortunately for Johnson (and unfortunately for Feingold), this newcomer has a pretty clean background. His "gaffes" have been of the type that drive elites crazy, like opposing global warming science. I think the science is solid, but voters don't really care about that stuff this cycle.
Still, this race SHOULD be closer. But then again, maybe the common denominator is simply that Feingold is unafraid to be the avatar of an argument that Wisconsin residents are just going to reject this cycle. Health care isn't popular. The stimulus is considered wasteful. The economy is tough and jobs aren't coming back. The profile of the electorate is much more conservative. Wisconsin has been run mostly by Democrats for eight years. It's not in very good shape. Feingold represents all of that. He's with the in crowd. Johnson's with the out crowd. Case closed.
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is a former contributing editor at The Atlantic