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?

CG: The culture issues are not as decisive in this cycle as they were, for example, in 1998—then, abortion was a big issue in Feingold’s reelection campaign. You don’t see Republicans talking a lot about the hot-button cultural issues this cycle. They’re talking about the size of government, they’re talking about the stimulus bill, they’re talking about health care. Spending is a real issue in Wisconsin. It’s traditionally been a high-tax high-service state, and for that reason, and just because of a conservative streak when it comes to money, deficits and spending have always been real issues here. Even Democrats will traditionally play lip service to those issues; Feingold has portrayed himself over the years as a deficit hawk. Politicians in Wisconsin have been much less likely to brag about bringing home the bacon than they have been to brag about their fiscal conservatism. But this cycle particularly the stimulus and health care and deficits and jobs are front and center.

What are the sideline issues?

CG: Wisconsin is one of the states that is slated to get hundreds of millions of dollars in high-speed rail money through the stimulus plan. Republicans have taken this on—more in the governor’s race—and are running against high-speed rail as a symbol of big government and government spending. If you go back to the governorship of Tommy Thompson, a hugely successful Republican governor, he was famous for building things. It would have been hard to imagine, fifteen years ago, Tommy Thompson—even as a Republican—opposing federal expenditures of $800 million in his state for a high-speed rail line.

How does Johnson’s businessman narrative fit into the national narratives of businesspeople funding their own campaigns?

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.