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WAUSAU, Wis. — Rural Marathon County has only 2 percent of Wisconsin’s population, but it provides a glimpse of why U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, one of the Senate’s most prominent liberal Democrats, still finds himself in an uphill battle to win re-election next week.
The county, the state’s largest at just under 1 million acres, is home to dairy farmers who help make Wisconsin the nation’s No. 2 milk producer and ginseng farmers who lead the world in production of the bitter root. Many residents work at factories producing paper products.
Conservative voters here might not be the likeliest allies for a Harvard-educated lawyer from near the state capital, but they have backed Feingold even while supporting Republican George W. Bush for president.
This year, however, a darker mood has settled in, and the latest polls show Feingold either trailing his Republican opponent, businessman Ron Johnson, or with the race too close to call.
The race provides a vivid illustration of two key factors shaping the midterm election as it enters its final days – disgruntled voters eager to shake up government as the nation’s economic woes drag on, and extraordinary saturation advertising by independent political groups attempting to sway public opinion.
Republicans leaders are increasingly optimistic about capturing both the House and possibly the Senate and are plotting a 2011 agenda that would push for $100 billion in spending cuts, tax reductions and attempts to undo parts of President Barack Obama’s health care and financial regulation laws.
Official figures showed more than 8.4 million ballots already have been cast in states where early voting is permitted or where absentees have been counted. And as candidates make their final push ahead of Nov. 2, there has been a flood of money into states – like Wisconsin – where races are close.
A recent study found that more advertising, much of it negative, had been broadcast about the Senate race in Wisconsin during one recent period than in any other Senate campaign in the country.
Marathon County has been a prime target because it’s also the site of a fierce House campaign. Outside interest groups have poured $2.8 million into the race between Democratic state Sen. Julie Lassa and Republican Sean Duffy, a former district attorney, as they vie to replace longtime Democratic U.S. Rep. David Obey.
But the primary focus is Feingold. Every day a broadcast barrage portrays him either as a career politician embedded in an oversize government or a feisty maverick who can fix what’s broken.
Feingold and Johnson are hammering away at their messages in the campaign’s final week. “What I’m telling people is, I have been very devoted to the top issues: jobs, the economy and the deficit,” Feingold said Monday. Says Johnson in a new TV ad released Tuesday, “We have to stop Washington’s overtaxing and overspending. It’s killing our jobs.”
Some voters are reevaluating their longtime senator, who was first elected in 1992.
Gloria Nelson of Wausau said she previously supported him but won’t this time because of the federal bailout of Wall Street. When told that Feingold actually voted against the bailout, the grocery-store worker in her mid-50s hesitated and said, “Well, I’m still not voting for him. He spends too much.”
Like unhappy voters elsewhere this year, many here have concluded that government isn’t working well and something must be done.
Johnson, a first-time candidate and tea party favorite who owns a plastics company, has based his campaign on scaling back. He says he’ll repeal the health care reform law and work to create jobs, and offers no apologies for having no plan for either. The Oshkosh manufacturer says he’s running on “who I am, what my background is.”
That Johnson has been running ahead even though he was unknown before the race began speaks volumes about Feingold’s challenge.
In Marathon County, Johnson doesn’t have to convince people that life could be better.
The state’s economic woes have hit hard in a place where dairy cows outnumbered people as recently as a few decades ago. Local companies that make windows and prefabricated homes have struggled in the housing downturn. At 10.5 percent, Wausau’s unemployment rate is above the state’s average unemployment rate of 7.8 percent in September.
Feingold has responded by calling upon his greatest political strength – his face to face campaigning. He has been holding his trademark listening sessions and touting his maverick credentials – for example, he was the only Democrat to oppose Wall Street reform because it wasn’t tough enough, and a bipartisan negotiator on campaign-finance reform.
But it’s not hard to find one-time Feingold supporters who are having second thoughts. Wausau dairy farmer Don Voelker, 64, says he thinks Feingold’s OK. But, “I think it’s just time for a change.”
Some voters say Feingold is getting an unfair rap for problems that aren’t his fault. Brad Karger, Marathon County’s administrator, said Feingold has a certain magic when he’s dealing with people one on one. However, “He might not have that magic this year,” Karger said. “There’s a lot of fear out there.”
Russ Feingold: http://www.russfeingold.org
Ron Johnson: http://www.ronjohnsonforsenate.com