Three-term Democrat Russ Feingold is being given a run for his money by Ron Johnson, but he says the 'enthusiasm gap' is a myth
(Bloomberg) — The Green Bay Packers football game against the Miami Dolphins had finished only about an hour before Republican activists streamed into a vacant motel turned into a party headquarters in rural Dodgeville, Wisconsin. About 50 adults gathered over cheese and sausage to hear a speech from Ron Johnson, a Republican businessman challenging Senator Russ Feingold, a three-term Democrat trailing in most polls.
"How many would have been here if the Packers had been on?" asked state Senator Dan Kapanke, a Republican running against Democratic U.S. Representative Ron Kind. In a state where the Packers pre-empt most activities, hands shot up. As in Wisconsin, where President Barack Obama won a 14- percentage-point victory just two years ago, Republicans nationwide say they are fired up to go the polls in the Nov. 2 midterm congressional elections.
"The people who are more conservative are stepping up and putting in volunteer time," said Tony Driscoll, 41, an information technology manager who lives in Dodgeville and volunteers for the Republican Party. "It's gotten personal because government has not listened to the people."
As the greens of Wisconsin's rural scenery give way to brown, orange and red hues, organizing the ground game to turn out voters is gaining intensity amid polls that show an enthusiasm gap between Republicans and Democrats. A Pew Research Center poll found Republicans more enthusiastic about casting a ballot than Democrats.
The Oct. 13- 18 survey of 1,797 registered voters revealed "ominous signs" for Democrats, the non-partisan research group said. The survey found Republicans hold a double-digit advantage among likely voters, 50 percent to 40 percent, little changed from early September. Among a broader group, registered voters, 46 percent say they favor or lean toward a Republican candidate in their district, compared with 42 percent for Democrats.
"Republican engagement continues at record levels, dwarfing even improved Democratic showings on these indicators," the Washington-based organization said. Democrats face a challenge motivating their voters to turn out, if party primaries this year prove to be a predictor for general election turnout. In 10 states where both parties held Senate primaries, the collective Republican turnout was 32 percent of registered voters, compared with 23 percent for Democrats, state election figures show.
Tea Party Activism
The difference in excitement between the two parties, fueled by Tea Party activism and an economy that isn't recovering fast enough to reduce unemployment, is boosting Republican optimism, while Democrats seek to reactivate a superior get-out-the-vote operation that helped propel Obama to the White House in 2008. Feingold, 57, called the enthusiasm gap a "figment of the Republicans' imagination" when he spoke Oct. 18 to a rally of about 200 supporters at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.
"I do not see an enthusiasm gap here tonight," he said to cheers. "What they're saying is, their people are going to vote, and our people aren't. I don't think so." A poll conducted Oct. 12-15 by the St. Norbert College Survey Center showed Republican Johnson ahead of Feingold, 49 to 47 percent, with a 5 percentage point margin of error.
Relying on Turnout
"It will depend on turnout," Feingold told reporters after his rally. "If it's a low turnout, we have a tough road." Turnout in midterm elections is historically lower than in presidential election years. In 2008, 64 percent of voting-age citizens cast ballots, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
That compares to 48 percent in 2006, the most recent midterm. In an interview, Johnson, 55, said Republicans and independent voters have been galvanized by opposition to deficit spending and governmental growth. "Across the political spectrum, people are incredibly concerned," said Johnson, a millionaire and first-time candidate. Republican primary turnout was higher than for Democrats in the 10 states reviewed: North Carolina, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, California, Nevada, Kansas, Colorado, Alaska, Arizona and Florida. This didn't include states such as Illinois where voter registration isn't tallied by party.
A study released in September by American University's Center for the Study of the American Electorate found that for the first time since 1930 Republican turnout in primary elections for statewide offices exceeded Democratic turnout. Republicans "had the biggest contests, so that doesn't surprise me," Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa said in an interview. "Most of that enthusiasm is with a certain band, the Tea Party type people, who seem to be more inclined to the Republican Party.
A lot of that enthusiasm is geared toward sort of the very far-out candidates and so I'm not certain that is going to spread nationwide." The nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington ranks the Wisconsin race as leaning Republican. Feingold and Johnson are scheduled to hold their final debate today. Outside groups not affiliated with the two campaigns or political parties spent $29,000 to help Feingold Sept. 1 through Oct. 17, compared to $2 million to help Johnson, Federal Election Commission records show. Television commercials, mailings and other advertisements have flooded Wisconsin in the campaign's closing weeks.
Republicans in Wisconsin have made almost 1.5 million phone calls to voters this year to boost interest in their candidates, already outpacing the total number before the 2008 election, said Andrew Welhouse, a spokesman for the state party. Nationwide, the Republican National Committee said volunteers have made more than 31 million calls so far, surpassing the total two years ago. Wisconsin's unemployment was 7.9 percent in August, lower than the national average of 9.6 percent.
Still, there are areas of greater economic stress, such as in the southern part of the state, where a General Motors Co. assembly plant closed in 2008. Ann Bosma, 43, a customer service representative for a trucking company who lives in Menasha, said she's a first-time political volunteer, making phone calls for Feingold. "It's very close and it would be a shame for him not to be our senator anymore," she said. "I'm so anxious about it, but making the calls makes feel better."