Tea Party Tug-of-War? Feingold Makes Appeal to WI Conservatives

Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold is a self-styled “maverick,” who opposes gun control, voted against the Patriot Act, rejected the unpopular TARP Wall Street bailout, and is fighting tooth and nail to beat the odds in a Senate race against a millionaire.

His credentials almost sound like they could belong to a Tea Party candidate. And maybe that’s exactly what the incumbent Democrat wants fiscally conservative Wisconsin voters to think.

Trailing behind Republican challenger and businessman Ron Johnson in the polls by 9 points according to the latest Real Clear Politics average, Feingold made a direct appeal to the Tea Party’s “average Joe” sensibility in a debate Friday night. “The Tea Party thinks all kinds of people should be in the U.S. Senate,” he said, prodding at Johnson’s income level. “Not just millionaires.”

It’s not the first time Feingold has aligned himself with the Tea Party. “I have actually done the things, most of the things, they are concerned about,” he said in a Wisconsin radio interview. “I think they ought to vote for me.”

The embattled senator needs to lure in fiscally conservative voters to stay afloat in the purple state, says Craig Gilbert, Washington Bureau Chief of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “In past races he’s played up that issue and talked a lot about deficits. He knows that’s part of the fabric of politics in Wisconsin.”

Feingold wryly noted Friday that Tea Party voters were not “the original members of the Feingold Senate campaign.” While the widespread Republican objection to Obama’s Wall Street reform was its scope, Feingold opposed it for not being comprehensive enough. And he is one of the few Democratic candidates this midterm election season to advertise their vote for the President’s health care legislation – a measure that has provoked widespread opposition from Tea Party groups.

“He’s been a more conservative Democrat on gun issues, he’s been active against earmarks, voted against a lot of spending bills, and he’ll make the case about voting against trade deals, but then on the other side of the ledger, you’ve got health care and the stimulus,” Gilbert says. “So obviously there will be a fair amount of Tea Party voters for whom that is a disqualifier.”

Skeptics say Feingold isn’t likely to win out against Johnson in a tug-of-war for Tea Party votes. “Given his association with traditional liberalism and progressivism, for him to go in and say, ‘well, the Tea Party voters ought to vote for me,’ I think is unlikely to be requited,” says Richard Esenberg, Wisconsin blogger and visiting assistant professor of law at Marquette University.

“The conservative part of the electorate appears it will be so large this cycle that it will be difficult for Feingold if he can’t peel away some conservative voters,” Gilbert says. Feingold is slated to debate Johnson for the second time in four days Monday night.

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