Looking for a dark-horse Republican in this year’s Senate elections? Try Bob Welch of Wisconsin, a true-blue conservative running against an unexpectedly weak incumbent, Democratic senator Russ Feingold. If Welch can win the GOP nomination next month, he may yet become the Saxby Chambliss of 2004–the guy much of official Washington wrote off, who nevertheless went on to a surprise victory in November.
”Feingold is a creature of the left-wing” says Welch, a silver-haired, 46-year-old state senator. “I’m for the free market, he’s for socialism.”
A Welch-Feingold contest probably would feature the starkest ideological contrast between two major Senate candidates. This is due in some measure to Welch, who is in the conservative mainstream, but mostly because of Feingold’s extremism. He is, after all, the single senator who voted against the Patriot Act.
Last April, Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican firm working with Welch, found that only 46 percent of likely voters believed that Feingold deserved reelection. This is a very low mark for a guy who has been in the Senate for two terms, and a classic sign of vulnerability. A more recent survey, the Badger Poll, put Feingold’s reelect number at 52 percent. Yet it questioned adults generally, not likely voters or even registered voters. In short, it probably overstated Feingold’s strength, such as it is.
“Feingold is on the bubble every time,” says Gene Ulm of Public Opinion Strategies. “He can be beaten by a good candidate.”
That almost happened six years ago, when congressman Mark Neumann nearly ousted Feingold. The Republican lost by less than 40,000 votes, or three percentage points. The conventional wisdom among many observers is that Neumann made the mistake of turning the race during its final week into a referendum on partial-birth abortion–and that as a result he blew a slight lead in a contest that was his to lose.
Feingold remains beatable. The problem has been finding the right challenger, especially because Neumann didn’t want to try again. Last fall, a Harris Poll revealed that Wisconsin’s former governor–and now Health and Human Services secretary–Tommy Thompson running neck-and-neck with the junior senator. But Thompson wasn’t interested. Neither were two other men generally put on the Wisconsin GOP’s A-list, congressmen Mark Green and Paul Ryan. They are possibly waiting for the retirement of Democratic senator Herb Kohl, who will turn 70 next year. What’s more, Green is said to be looking at a race for governor in two years and Ryan may want a future in House leadership.
Many Republicans are concerned about Welch’s prospects because he captured only 41 percent of the electorate in a race against Kohl in 1994, an outstanding year for many other members of his party. Then again, Kohl tapped his personal fortune and outspent Welch by a factor of eight.
Feingold can’t do the same thing, though Welch’s two main primary opponents have their own deep pockets. Russ Darrow is a Milwaukee car dealer; Tim Michels is a former Army Ranger and now a businessman. Current polls show Darrow in front, with Welch clearly in second place and Michels hobbling along in third. In prospective head-to-head match-ups, Feingold holds solid but not insurmountable leads over all three men. Against Darrow, it’s Feingold 40 percent and Darrow 16 percent. Against Welch, it’s 36 percent to 10 percent. That’s a big gap, but it owes more to Republicans being unfamiliar with their own field than it does to Feingold’s popularity. An incumbent shouldn’t be at 36 percent against a relatively unknown challenger three months before Election Day.
Welch is probably the man Feingold would least like to face in November. He is a policy maven who can speak with expertise on a variety of issues–an ability that neither Darrow nor Michels can duplicate. And whereas Darrow and Michels have written checks to Democratic politicians–Darrow even sent one to Feingold last year–many grassroots conservatives in Wisconsin understand Welch to be their candidate because they’ve followed his legislative career in Madison as a champion of tax cuts, welfare reform, and school choice.
Feingold’s own career in Washington is conspicuously lacking. He is, of course, celebrated among the political class as a chief sponsor of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law. Yet few people in Wisconsin actually know about this–and when they learn it, they tend not to care. The bottom line is that Feingold’s legislative claim to fame is no asset at home, except perhaps among a wine-and-cheese crowd that’s inclined toward him anyway.
“I’m going to make sure voters not only know that he voted against the Patriot Act, but also that he has voted against nine of the last ten defense authorization bills and a pay raise for the military,” says Welch, in a message aimed at both conservatives at Reagan Democrats.
Two other factors may work in the favor of Welch, or whoever wins the Republican nomination. The first is a contested primary, which often has the effect of strengthening a nominee. Wisconsin’s is very late, on September 14–and that means the GOP nominee will win and then face a sprint to the finish line. This creates a significant fundraising hurdle, but it also has a Republican making news after Labor Day.
Finally, Wisconsin’s GOP Senate nominee may get a boost from President Bush. Few of this year’s competitive Senate races will take place in states either Bush or Kerry will contest. With the exception of Florida, none of them will receive more attention than Wisconsin–a situation that may very well help Feingold’s opponent, no matter who he is.
With any luck, it will be Welch.