MADISON, Wis. — Republican Sen. Ron Johnson and former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold are preparing to meet for the first of two televised debates in their tightening race.
They’ve been here before, six years ago, when Feingold was the more experienced, polished politician and Johnson a underdog newcomer. This year, Johnson enters Friday’s debate in Green Bay — just 25 days before the election — as the incumbent but still the apparent underdog.
Even so, the underlying dynamic remains the same, said Republican strategist Mark Graul, who helped Johnson prepare in 2010 and again is lending his advice. What’s he telling Johnson?
“To be himself,” Graul said. “Ron Johnson is famously not a politician. He’s not the guy who’s going to go up there and deliver the canned one-liners and sound bites.”
Still, there’s more pressure on Johnson to shake up the race, given he’s trailing in polls, said Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster from Madison. Feingold — who’s been in politics for 34 years, 28 in elected office — should stay the course, not do anything too dramatic, and “keep on keepin’ on,” Maslin said.
Both sides have tried to cast the race as about which candidate is better both for the economy and national security. Feingold has campaigned to increase the minimum wage, help college students refinance student loans and oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal.
Johnson argues that he has a stronger plan for fighting terrorism and that his experience helping to build a plastics manufacturing company in Oshkosh puts him in a better position than Feingold to understand how to create jobs and the economy.
The presidential race has cast a long shadow over the race, as Johnson has long been seen as vulnerable due to the state generally skewing Democratic in presidential years. But he was buoyed by a Marquette University Law School poll released Wednesday showing the race as nearly even.
He’s also become increasingly aggressive on the campaign trail, sticking by Donald Trump in the wake of sexual assault allegations and challenging Feingold to defend backing of Hillary Clinton.
Feingold has described her as “reliable and trustworthy”; polls show a majority of Wisconsin voters disagree. The Wisconsin Republican Party released radio ads Thursday attacking Feingold for that comment and painting him as a hypocrite for taking the majority of his campaign cash from out-of-state donors.
Feingold has been careful not to break ties with the more liberal wing of the party, appearing at recent rallies with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Johnson expects Feingold to try to use his support for Trump against him in the debate, which he says he’ll counter by comparing Feingold’s “lack of having a record of accomplishment” with his own record in the Senate.
Johnson’s Senate office released a report Thursday highlighting his work as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, noting bills passed on issues like border and immigration security and reducing federal regulations.
Feingold’s signature legislation during 18 years in the Senate was co-sponsoring with Republican Sen. John McCain a campaign finance overhaul. He also was the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act, which was enacted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and opposed President Barack Obama’s decision to expand the war in Afghanistan. However, he was a vocal supporter of Obama’s health care overhaul law.
Johnson has been preparing for Friday’s showdown by going over tapes from 2010’s three debates. Feingold campaign spokesman Michael Tyler said he’s been “listening to the needs of middle-income and working families” in advance of the debate.
The two will take questions from a panel of journalists during the hour-long debate, which is sponsored by the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association and will be broadcast widely across the state as well as on C-SPAN.
Feingold and Johnson’s second and only other planned debate is Tuesday in Milwaukee. That 90-minute debate will be hosted by WISN-TV and the Marquette University Law School and moderated by Mike Gousha, a veteran broadcast political journalist.