Political scientists are jumping for joy over former Senator Russ Feingold's announcement yesterday that he is seeking a rematch against Senator Ron Johnson in 2016. It's not very often that we get a former incumbent who seeks an immediate comeback against the guy who beat him in the last election cycle to serve as a true apples-to-apples comparison of the state of the electorate. Add to that the fact that the two candidate are so diametrically opposed to each other on the political spectrum that there is no middle ground for voters to find--and this become a perfect case study for the consistency--or inconsistency--of Wisconsin politics.
If you believe polls conducted more than a year and a half before an election, this should be a cakewalk for Feingold, as the Marquette Law School gives him a 54 to 36% lead--and that was before he even announced. But that same poll finds a full 40% of prospective voters have no opinion--good or bad--about Johnson--meaning a sitting politician has a rare chance to define himself for nearly half of the voters in the 18-months before the election. Also in Feingold's favor is that 2016 is a Presidential election year--and no Wisconsin Republican has won a Senate race in a Presidential cycle since Robert Kasten in 1980. (Although Santa Claus--I mean Herb Kohl was on the ballot for a few of those and who was going to beat your kindly, rich uncle in a popularity contest?)
Expect the 2016 Senate race to also be a referendum on the Affordable Care Act. Fewer than half of voters support the law and just this week Families USA released a report that finds that 25% of people who gained insurance coverage under the individual mandate have not used it once in the past year and a half--likely because they can't afford the deductibles or co-pays. So how strong is their support for having to keep paying their premiums--as required by the law?
Feingold's biggest challenge, however, is that he will still have to convince some portion of the state's electorate that they made a mistake in 2010. Yes, Presidential year vote totals for Democrats "automatically" go up in Wisconsin, but Feingold can't just sit back and rely on the "I only vote every four years, straight ticket" folks to "automatically" make up the five percent gap from six years ago. Sure, we have had one-term politicians--but rarely have they immediately lost to the person they beat in the previous election--it was usually a "fresh face with new ideas" that people voted for the next time around--not the guy with the "old ideas" they rejected the last time. And if you know anything about people--we don't like to admit we made mistakes--even if we think we may have.