LB: It was a bit of a surprise but it comes down to a couple of things. He’s the governor of the state and our state’s not doing too well right now; just by virtue of his position he assumes some of the blame for what’s happening. And I just don’t think he’s been effective at addressing economic issues in the last year or so.

Tom Barrett seems to have the Democratic nomination locked up, and Scott Walker has pulled ahead of his GOP rival Mark Neumann. Why has Walker seemingly come out on top among the Republicans?

LB: I think Walker has been an effective campaigner. He has all the support of the Republican orthodoxy in the state. Neumann is more of an outsider; Walker is the Milwaukee County executive. He won the party’s nomination at the state convention, he’s attracting support from the Republican Governor’s Association, and he’s getting a lot of support from Republicans in the state. Neumann is a businessman, a former congressman, who is largely self-financed. The two messages in a way are the same. They both are calling for smaller government, less taxes, making the state more competitive in the years to come. But Neumann is trying to differentiate himself from everybody else because he’s been a successful businessman.

That message has worked elsewhere.

LB: I think it could work in Wisconsin. It’s not a matter of business experience being a negative. In our case I think it’s just a matter that Walker and Barrett have simply run more effective campaigns at this point compared to Neumann.

What’s Barrett’s approach to the GOP front-runner?

LB: Barrett and Walker have become critical of each other, and the Republican Governors Association has run ads critical of Barrett. They’ve painted Barrett as no different from Jim Doyle, someone who was for higher taxes, bigger government, and wouldn’t help out on the economy. Barrett has come back with a critical ad portraying Walker as a flip-flopper. Walker had taken a position that was fairly moderate on immigration; when Arizona governor Jan Brewer came out with their immigration plan, he said he wouldn’t go as strongly as that. About twenty-four hours later he said he would support the Arizona plan.

Walker has made an issue of “Obamacare.” How has that played in Wisconsin?

LB: I think it will resonate with a lot of voters but I don’t think that it’s black and white by any means. I would venture to say—and we haven’t done a lot of polling on “Obamacare” at all—that there’d be fifty-fifty or a slight advantage to those opposed to health care reform.

The difference is that in our state we have several state-funded health care plans for low-income people. When you add those in with traditional health care for the poor, our system of providing health care to those who need it—low-income folks—is pretty good. Health care reform had kind of been going on in our state already.

In the senate race, Democrat Russ Feingold seems to have suffered through his attachment to controversial policies like Obamacare.

CG: I covered Feingold’s first Senate campaign in 1992 and I’ve covered him a lot from Washington as well. I think his problems this year are largely due to the political climate. Feingold has had close races before; in 1998 he had a real scare running against a Republican named Mark Neumann [now running for governor]. He didn’t have a really competitive race in 2004 because the Republicans didn’t come up with a very strong candidate. So he’s never been a really dominant figure when it comes to his reelection campaigns. In some respects, it’s not a huge surprise that he would have a real battle on his hands given the year that it is. And a lot of it is going to depend on how strong a candidate his opponent turns out to be.

Of the Republicans vying to become that opponent, businessman Ron Johnson appears to be leading the pack. Where did he come from?

CG: He kind of came out of nowhere. In the past year, the Republicans have cycled through a bunch of potential challengers for Feingold—some of them flamed out for one reason or another, some of them decided not to run. Johnson emerged a little in the context of the Tea Party movement, though I don’t think you can call him strictly speaking a Tea Party candidate. He doesn’t have much of a political background, but he was very attractive to people in the party because of his business background and because of his ability to spend a lot of his own money on the campaign.

He does have some Tea Party credentials—pro-life, anti-Obamacare. How does that play in a bluer state like Wisconsin?

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.