The refreshing amateurism of Feingold's challenger

Patrick McIlheran writes a paean to the concept of citizen legislators in his Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel column today focusing on Republican challenger Ron Johnson, running for Senate against longtime incumbent Russ Feingold.  He seems cheered by Johnson’s unfamiliarity with the protocols of campaigning, even while Johnson learns the ropes.  In a year where insider, professional-politician status has hit its nadir with voters, Johnson may be exactly what Wisconsin voters want — an amateur:

Republicans hoped that Wisconsin’s most masterful politician in 30 years, Tommy Thompson, would take on 18-year incumbent Sen. Russ Feingold this vulnerable year. They nearly got Terry Wall, a businessman with political experience.

Instead, they’re likely to get Johnson, an Oshkosh plastics manufacturer with almost no engagement with politics until last fall (provided he beats underfunded Watertown businessman Dave Westlake in the primary).

Johnson lacks some customary tools. While he got noticed via a talk he gave at a tea party last year, he is merely a sufficient public speaker. He lacks glad-handing instincts: On a July tour of one of the state’s largest schools, St. Anthony’s in Milwaukee, he waves hello to lunch ladies but doesn’t interrupt them to politick. To editors, he excitedly hands out holographic cards promoting his candidacy: The plastic is made by his company, Pacur, and he’s proud of it. He enthuses like a guy who, until months ago, was all about plastic packaging instead of political packaging.

That’s not to say that Johnson isn’t learning the ropes.  In his first political campaign ever, he appears to be a quick study.  Early on, he mistakenly used the word “licensing” instead of “permits” for guns, and got a fast lesson in the differences.  Feingold has attempted to paint Johnson as an empty suit with extreme beliefs (an interesting contradiction), but McIlheran notes that Johnson remains almost entirely focused on mainstream fiscal conservatism:

Pressed by editors, he says his beef with the Democrats’ agenda is that it “creates a high level of uncertainty” that intimidates business. He dismisses talk about changing birthright citizenship, cautiously lauds the drawdown in Iraq, says Republicans “went off the rails” with overspending and says “the way you raise revenue is you get the economy going again” rather than raising taxes.

He elaborates on answers, lacking the talking-point caution customary to candidates. You can see he’s been thinking about this stuff lately, an intellectually curious man who spent the summer learning about trade by touching gears, thinking about how his principles apply to politics.

It’s the look of a guy who didn’t plan his life around winning office. It’s refreshing to see.

The electorate in 2010 appears ready for “refreshing” citizen legislators as a replacement for the entrenched elite in Washington DC.  That includes Wisconsin, which has embraced Johnson quickly, according to Rasmussen’s survey last week:

The latest Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of Likely Wisconsin Voters shows Johnson with 47% support and Feingold picking up 46% of the vote. Two percent (2%) prefer another candidate, and five percent (5%) are undecided.

Late last month, Johnson held a 48% to 46% lead, and two weeks prior to that was ahead 47% to 46%. In fact, this is the fifth survey since May in which Feingold’s support has remained at 46%. He was reelected in 2004 with 55% of the vote.

When an incumbent drops below 50% at any time, he’s in trouble.  When an incumbent can’t get above 46% in five straight surveys, he’s in deep trouble.  Feingold may be chagrined to find himself in such dire straits against an amateur like Johnson, but with the career politicians making such a mess of things over the last two years, it’s time to give the amateur a chance.