Wisconsin, of all places, attracted a heaping helping of star power in the waning days of the 2016 election. And while Republicans hope the state is still in play for the presidential contest, much of the attention is focused on a neck-and-neck Senate race that could determine which party controls the upper chamber.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, the GOP vice presidential nominee, as well as Rep. Paul Ryan, the local boy and speaker of the House, barnstormed on behalf of Republican Donald Trump. Vice President Joe Biden and would-be vice president and current Virginia Senator Tim Kaine made the rounds through Wisconsin’s hustings for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee.
For the Trump campaign, that’s partly because his path to the White House requires winning at least one blue-leaning state. Though Clinton leads Trump 46 percent to 40 percent in Wisconsin, according to a Nov. 2 Marquette University Law School poll, electoral math makes it a state potentially worth fighting for. “In every scenario that Trump wins, Wisconsin seems to be a pivotal state,” Republican strategist Steve Grubbs told the Journal Times.
Down ballot, Wisconsin is still in play, and both parties’ last-minute push in Wisconsin could tip the balance in one of the closest Senate races in the country, which pits incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson (R.-Wis.) against former Senator Russ Feingold. Democrats need to win four seats to regain control of the senate. While both parties are also watching close races in Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania, Wisconsin could mark the difference.
But even if Democrats can help Feingold regain his mojo and win back his seat, they’ll be sending back to Washington a noted foreign-policy dove, one who is unlikely to back any overseas adventurism in the event Hillary Clinton prevails on Nov. 8. That could constrain her ability to take a more aggressive line on Russian activities in Syria, for example.
Feingold had led polls all season, but with a late push, Johnson has closed quickly, and the two are now in a statistical dead heat, according to the Marquette University poll. Early on, “Johnson looked like a lost cause,” Paul Nolette, assistant professor of political science at Marquette University, told Foreign Policy. But the race is tightening “quite a bit … and somewhat surprisingly,” he added.
An 11th-hour funding surge for Johnson (the national committee is throwing nearly $1 million into the race this week), coupled with Clinton’s email-driven slip in the polls, seems to have shaved Feingold’s lead.
As in other state races across the country, economic and domestic issues still drive the Senate race in Wisconsin; Feingold, for example, has campaigned on the need for a higher minimum wage and college affordability while Johnson campaigned on private sector job growth and curtailing the national debt. But the big foreign-policy and national-security issues that dominated the presidential campaign — from how to fight the Islamic State to the Iran deal to how to deal with a resurgent Russia — have played an outsized role at the state level, too.
“Compared to other senate races, foreign policy has played a bigger role here in Wisconsin than elsewhere,” Nolette said.
Johnson, who Nolette calls “one of the most hawkish members” of the Senate, stands in stark contrast to Feingold, who Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus once called “the biggest dove in America.” Their ideological gap on foreign policy is so yawning, Nolette said, both candidates are using it to rally their own supporters.
Johnson, chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, has tried to paint Feingold as weak on national security. Johnson used his platform at the Republican National Convention in July to attack Feingold for voting “against authorizing our military 11 separate times.” The pro-Johnson Let America Work PAC ran an ad in the state against Feingold, arguing he would “make America weaker.” And Johnson called for sending ground troops to Iraq to defeat the Islamic State as early as October 2014.
Feingold, in turn, attacked Johnson in January for wanting to send a coalition of 100,000 troops, including 25,000 Americans, to the Middle East to defeat the Islamic State. “There’s no way we can just invade our way into solving this,” Feingold said. He’d also voted against the original invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Feingold, who was senator from 1993 to 2011, when he lost his seat to Johnson, was long branded a dove by Republican colleagues. He was the only senator to vote against the 2001 Patriot Act, citing concerns over civil liberties infringements. “I know I did the right thing there,” he said of the decision.
Dovish hardly means lightweight on foreign policy, however. In the Senate, Feingold served on the Committee on Foreign Relations and the Select Committee on Intelligence and was a respected Africa hand.
There was “probably no one in the Senate as knowledgeable on Africa issues as [Feingold] was,” Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies told FP. That prompted Feingold’s appointment in 2013 as U.S. special envoy for the African Great Lakes and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a post he held until 2015.
If reelected, Feingold will likely resist calls for an increased military footprint in the United States’ foreign policy — even, it seems, if those calls were to from a Democratic White House.
“There is a knee-jerk tendency which [Johnson] shows, as do many others, of always going first to a purely military strategy and not doing the things that are necessary to make the overall strategy work,” Feingold said in one interview, criticizing U.S. engagement in Iraq. “It’s living in the past with approaches that have failed and obviously left us vulnerable.”
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