MADISON, Wis. — Republican Sen. Ron Johnson’s campaign manager tried to reassure jittery supporters Wednesday with a memo expressing confidence in where the incumbent stands in the race against Democrat Russ Feingold, hours before the campaign was handed some good polling news.
Campaign manager Betsy Ankeny warned not to lose hope in Johnson, who many see as vulnerable. She concluded her two-page summation of the race with this: “Ron’s been underestimated before, and smart observers would be wise not to do so again.”
A new Marquette University Law School poll showed the race to be tightening to about even. Feingold was up by 5 points three weeks ago, a lead that’s shrunk to 2 points, which is within the margin of error.
Johnson’s hold on the seat is seemingly tenuous in a year when Democrats are trying to regain the chamber. He’s never led in the Marquette poll, turnout in presidential years in Wisconsin favors Democrats and both Republican and Democratic groups have pulled back spending on television ads.
Democrats are also optimistic, given no Republican senator in Wisconsin has been elected in a presidential year since 1980. Wisconsin hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1984.
The Marquette poll showed Feingold with 46 percent support, Johnson at 44 percent and 9 percent either voting for Libertarian Phil Anderson or undecided. The poll, conducted Oct. 6 through Sunday, surveyed 878 likely voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.
Feingold’s campaign spokesman Michael Tyler dismissed Johnson’s pre-poll release spin.
“Senator Johnson, down in every credible poll and clinging to Donald Trump, has failed to explain to Wisconsinites why he deserves re-election after almost six years of partisan attacks,” Tyler said in a statement.
Johnson reiterated his support for Trump this week, while also denouncing the presidential candidate’s predatory comments about women. He also has echoed Trump’s attacks on Clinton, asking Feingold to defend his support for her.
In an attempt to keep Johnson in office, the political arm of conservative PAC Club for Growth announced Wednesday a $750,000 television ad buy attacking Feingold’s 34-year career in politics, including 18 in the Senate before he was defeated by Johnson in 2010. Johnson’s campaign also released a new ad attacking Feingold for his support of President Barack Obama’s health care law.
Feingold has outraised Johnson $15.5 million to $14.7 million based on the most recent filings, but outside groups have spent more to help the Republican to the tune of $6.7 million according to a tally by the Center for Responsive Politics. Outside groups have spent almost $1.4 million for Feingold.
Ankeny said in the memo that the Johnson campaign is confident it will have more money on hand than Feingold for the final weeks of the race. Johnson’s campaign said it ended the third quarter with $5.4 million cash on hand, while Feingold has not said how much he has.
The race is one of the most closely watched in the country as Democrats see it as central to netting four or five seats to win back Senate control — four if they hang onto the White House and can send the vice president to break ties in the Senate; five if they don’t.
Feingold is trying to become only the third former senator nationwide since 1956 to return to the Senate after losing re-election. And it’s been even longer nationally, 1934, since someone beat the same person who knocked them out of office.
Johnson and Feingold meet Friday in Green Bay for the first of two scheduled debates.