Timing may be everything in politics, but it hasn’t been kind to Russ Feingold. When the former—and perhaps future—Wisconsin senator was supporting gay marriage and railing against corporate welfare, trade deals, the Iraq War, and the Patriot Act, his was a lonely voice in the Democratic Party. And in 2010, just a few months after the Supreme Court gutted his signature legislative achievement, he faced off against a Tea Party-aligned plastics executive named Ron Johnson in the midst of a Republican wave. Feingold lost an election he surely would have won had it occurred two years earlier or later.
In announcing Thursday that he would seek a rematch against Johnson, Feingold, 62, is betting that his timing will finally be right in 2016. With Feingold’s brand of progressive populism having ripened into a consensus among Democrats, it’s a pretty decent gamble—at least as things stand a year-and-a-half out from the election. For starters, unlike in 2010 he’ll be running in a presidential-election year, and the Democratic nominee has carried Wisconsin every four years since 1984. He shouldn’t have a messy primary to win, as both the party establishment and progressive activists celebrated his entry into the race. The Senate Democrats’ campaign arm immediately endorsed him, and both the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and their favorite Democratic senator, Elizabeth Warren, sent out rapid requests for money to their email lists. Finally, while Johnson now has the advantage of incumbency, Feingold begins the race leading in the polls: A Marquette University survey last month found that the Democrat had a whopping 16-point lead over Johnson among registered voters.