MILWAUKEE — Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders? The question is much more than a ballot choice for Democrat Russ Feingold, whose hopes of reclaiming the Senate seat he held for 18 years rests with Wisconsin voters heavily invested in the presidential nomination fight.
As Sanders and Clinton slug it out, Feingold is trying to stay on the sidelines. He is not taking sides — at least publicly — in the Democratic primary and will skip their debate in his home state on Thursday. Feingold wants to avoid alienating Democrats, especially young voters, and keep them united behind his quest to win his way back to the Senate.
Feingold was ousted in 2010 by Republican Ron Johnson. Their rematch is one of the most closely watched Senate races this year, and a seat Democrats hope they can win as they try to reclaim the majority.
Johnson also has not endorsed anyone in the muddled Republican presidential race, dodging the endorsement question despite being repeatedly asked to take a stand on sometimes inflammatory comments made by Donald Trump. Johnson has said he will back whoever is the nominee.
Just as there may be little incentive for Johnson to pick a Republican in that unsettled field, there's also little reason for Feingold to side with either Sanders or Clinton with Wisconsin's primary almost two months away on April 5.
Feingold, in a statement to The Associated Press, praised the Democratic candidates for having a "healthy, substantive debate about the issues that matter most to middle class and working families," while saying Republican presidential hopefuls are trying to "demonize and alienate as many Americans as possible."
Feingold is also being careful not to anger young voters who helped propel Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, to a huge victory over Clinton on Tuesday in New Hampshire.
Voters aged 18-29 are critical in Wisconsin because they show up in large numbers in a presidential election year. In 2012, the 18-29 voter turnout rate was 45 percent nationally and 58 percent in Wisconsin. Exit polls in New Hampshire showed that 83 percent of voters aged 18-29 voted for Sanders.
Feingold has focused much of his campaign on wooing those younger voters, visiting college campuses and emphasizing his plan to lower the student financial debt burden.
While that argument will appeal to Sanders' backers, Feingold also must be careful not to anger more establishment Democrats who are behind Clinton. Both factions have been strong backers of Feingold. He made his name in the Senate as a liberal advocate for campaign finance reform but is also embraced by moderates as the best candidate to take down Johnson, who rose out of the tea party movement.
The most recent Marquette University Law School poll bore out that wide Democratic support, with Feingold viewed favorably by three out of four backers of both Clinton and Sanders.
Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster who worked on Feingold's losing 2010 campaign, said Feingold is under no pressure to align himself with either Clinton or Sanders at this point.
"Why mess with a good thing? He's ahead," Maslin said. "I think he can sort of stay above the fray and whatever the outcome is, just deal with that. He'll be fine with that."
Feingold also has a history of not endorsing in Democratic presidential primaries. He didn't announce his support for Barack Obama in 2008 until after he had voted for him. Obama defeated Clinton by 17 percentage points in Wisconsin in 2008.
Still, that hasn't stopped Johnson's campaign from needling Feingold for not endorsing. Betsy Ankney, Johnson's campaign manager, said Feingold "faces the lose-lose proposition of running with a fellow professional politician nobody trusts, or a self-admitted Socialist who shares his far-left ideology."
Feingold does have a history of backing Sanders. His political action committee, Progressives United, gave $5,000 to Sanders' re-election in 2012 and $1,000 in January 2015, four months before he launched his presidential campaign. Feingold shut down the committee in May as he entered the Senate race.
At this stage, there are few visible signs of the Clinton or Sanders campaigns in Wisconsin, with no paid staff on the ground yet. Sanders has been to the state once, way back in early July, but he drew his largest crowd up to that point with a rally in liberal Madison that attracted 10,000 people. Clinton was last in Wisconsin for a September campaign stop in Milwaukee.
Clinton has strong support among Wisconsin Democratic Party insiders, known as superdelegates, who will cast ballots for a presidential nominee at the national convention. Half of the 10 had publicly committed to her by early November, including U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who planned to be at the debate and working the spin room.
This story has been corrected to show that the donation to Sanders in 2015 came before he launched his presidential campaign.