MILWAUKEE — With a businessman's perspective and a wealth of voter angst and anger over the economy to tap into, Ron Johnson on Tuesday defeated three-term incumbent Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold.
Johnson, a Republican, won the seat by a decisive margin, running up large totals as expected in GOP strongholds such as Waukesha, Walworth and Dodge counties, but also competing with Feingold for votes in more moderate areas of the state.
Johnson's victory was both historic and compelling. He will become the state's first Republican senator since Feingold defeated Bob Kasten in 1992. And he won despite the fact that most state residents, and even those who lived in his hometown, had never heard of the plastics manufacturing executive until he jumped into the race in May.
Johnson ran a simple campaign, positioning himself as a citizen legislator and condemning Feingold's status as an 18-year member of the Senate. Johnson vowed he would work to end the growth in spending, find ways to cut the deficit, and replace and repeal the health care law.
Johnson's ascension from obscurity attracted national headlines as he mounted a strong challenge to Feingold. In his three terms, Feingold became known as a maverick who was generally a reliable Democrat vote, but also forged a reputation as an independent spirit by co-authoring the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, voting against the Patriot Act, opposing the Wall Street bailout and voting against Wall Street regulation because it was not strong enough.
On Tuesday, however, voters decided that a fresh perspective was needed in Washington.
Feingold, who never got more than 55 percent of the vote in his previous three elections, knew he was going to be in a tough fight early on. While Feingold touted his independence and enemy status among Washington lobbyists, Johnson portrayed his opponent as a Washington insider who ignored the wishes of his constituents.
It didn't help Feingold that the economy continued to sputter.
"When you combine tough economic conditions and appeals to extremism, that's a deadly combination," Feingold said during the campaign. Tuesday night at a Middleton hotel, Feingold conceded the race to Johnson, and quoted the Bob Dylan song "Mississippi."
"But my heart is not weary, it's light and free. I've got nothing but affection for those who have sailed with me," Feingold told the crowd.
Exit polling statewide clearly showed the economy was the biggest issue for voters, with 65 percent of those surveyed saying it was the most important issue facing the country. Health care at 20 percent was a distant second.
Of the 65 percent who said the economy was the most important issue, 54 percent of them were Johnson supporters, compared with 45 percent for Feingold.
Johnson also was able to capture the majority of supporters who were either dissatisfied or angry with the federal government.
Johnson not only captured his Republican base, but also was able to attract support from voters who had described themselves as moderate in previous elections but turned more conservative.
Johnson also enjoyed the early backing of prominent conservative talk-show hosts, including Vicki McKenna and Charlie Sykes.
Johnson was a one-man economic stimulus, tapping into his large personal fortune and benefiting from an unrelenting barrage of third-party ads from national groups that had targeted Feingold. Johnson ranked second in the country for the number of ads for a U.S. Senate race; he ranked first in the period of Sept. 1 to Oct. 20.
The most recent campaign finance reports showed Johnson spent at least $10.3 million, $8.2 million of which was his own money. Feingold, according to the most recent reports, spent $10.9 million.
Nationally, groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Action Network Inc. and Club for Growth Action spent more than a million dollars to defeat Feingold.
"With Ron Johnson's victory, the voters in Wisconsin sent a clear and resounding message, calling for a robust defense of the American free enterprise system," said a statement Tuesday night from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Johnson began his campaign with a set of television and radio ads intended to introduce himself to voters. Gradually he began to take aim at Feingold, calling him a career politician who was not a maverick, but a Democrat more in line with President Barack Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. He then branched out in TV ads, attacking Feingold for his stands on the economic stimulus bill and challenging him on his reputation as a penny pincher.
Feingold shot back, charging that Johnson that didn't have his facts right about his voting record. And he said Johnson was unable or unwilling to provide details of the key issues.
At one key moment during the campaign, Johnson said he didn't want to provide specifics, for fear of being attacked for his stands. Despite the lack of detail on key issues, Johnson stuck to his script, calling the health care law the greatest single assault on freedom in his lifetime and vowing to put an end to excessive and unneeded spending in Washington.
On the campaign trail, Feingold stayed aggressive, hitting college campuses and Democratic strongholds. Feingold was one of the few candidates around the country to say he was proud he supported the health care law. He challenged Johnson to refute what was wrong with providing insurance coverage to people who didn't have it. Feingold also reminded voters that he voted against the Troubled Asset Relief Program, and an unfunded war against Iraq.
Johnson stumbled at times during the race, telling the Journal Sentinel that sunspots and not manmade factors helped explain climate change; getting caught up in testimony he gave last January in which he opposed a bill intended to make it easier for victims of childhood abuse to sue their abusers; and for using the words "creative destruction" to describe the winners and losers in a free-market system.
Johnson also had to answer to critics who said that he was being hypocritical for criticizing the economic stimulus bill and other forms of government assistance while at the same time getting government-run industrial revenue bonds early in his business career at Pacur, his plastics manufacturing company.
Feingold believed he had a wedge with Johnson's support of free and fair trade agreements. Feingold said he opposed such free-trade agreements, saying the deals sent thousands of jobs overseas.
Johnson countered, saying that as long as the deals were fair, they were good for the state and national economy.
In debates and in campaign appearances, Johnson would often say that he couldn't make judgments on some issues because he did not have all of the details members of Congress have. On foreign policy, for example, he said more than once that he would be reluctant to say anything publicly that might harm U.S. troops.
Feingold leaped on the statements, saying it was the job of a senator to voice his or her opinions.
The distinction didn't seem to matter to Johnson's supporters.
"To me, voters vote for a philosophy," Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin. "Voters do not take out a 100-column Excel spreadsheet with issues and bills and fill out checkmarks. I think the reason why voters have been comfortable with Ron is that he has provided a clear window into his philosophy and who he is as a person."
Johnson left that impression on voters with one ad in which he explained why he felt he had to get off "my rear-end" to run for the U.S. Senate seat.
"This is a man who stood up and got tired of yelling at the television set," U.S. Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin said.
(Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporters Mark Johnson and Bill Glauber contributed to this report.)