Another day, another vulnerable Dem Senate seat

Poll shows a potential Republican challenger beating Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold

Topics: 2010 Elections, Russell D. Feingold, D-Wis., U.S. Senate, Wisconsin, War Room,

The bad election news for the Democrats keeps pouring in. Just ten days after the liberal bastion of Massachusetts elected a Republican to fill Sen. Ted Kennedy’s seat, a new survey suggests that Wisconsin voters could be persuaded to abandon another liberal stalwart.

A Rasmussen poll published on Thursday has progressive favorite Sen. Russ Feingold trailing potential Republican challenger Tommy Thompson 47 percent to 43 percent.

(Yes, it’s Rasmussen, and yes, because they use a likely voter model, their surveys tend to spot Republicans a couple points – but they were also the first pollster to show that Scott Brown had a real chance in Massachusetts, so at this point it seems like a bad idea for Democrats to dismiss their doomsday predictions out-of-hand.)

The numbers among Republicans and Democrats are pretty unremarkable: In a contest between Feingold and Thompson, 85 percent of Democrats say they’d vote for Feingold and 84 percent of Republicans say they’d go for Thompson, a former Wisconsin governor and member of the Bush administration. The real problem for Feingold lies with independents, who went for Obama 58-39 in Wisconsin back in 2008. Now, they’re trending to the right, breaking hard for Thompson, 53-36.

There are a few reasons, however, to take all this with a grain of salt. First of all, Thompson’s four point lead falls within the margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points – so it’s possible that the situation isn’t quite as dire as it seems. More importantly, the former governor has yet to officially throw his hat into the race, and though Republicans are urging him to run, it’s not clear that he actually will. Thompson’s most recent comments on the subject were made in a brief interview with Politico last week: “I’m not saying no,” he said at the time.

Thompson remains well-liked in Wisconsin and is by far the best horse Republicans could run in this race, so it’s unclear whether Feingold would be facing any real trouble if Thompson decided not to run.

Rasmussen Reports President Scott Rasmussen told Salon that Feingold might still have “potential vulnerability” to another GOP challenger, pointing to Feingold’s relatively low favorability rating (47 percent) in the poll. “Thompson is clearly the strongest competitor, but, you know, it’s also not the strongest start to an election season for [Feingold],”  Rasmussen said.

“None of us know which way the economy will head between now and November. None of us know which way things will go on other issues. It could be that this is just a low point for the Democrats and that a seat like Wisconsin won’t be competitive come November …. It’s also possible that things could get worse for the Democrats.”

Either way, the poll results mean that, if a legitimate challenger emerges, you can add Feingold’s name to the growing list of seats that the Democrats have to worry about come November.

A few hours after the poll was published, the Feingold campaign released its 2009 fundraising numbers, which show the junior senator from Wisconsin entering 2010 with $3.65 million on hand. The campaign also chose the day the poll came out to announce a big hire.

Emily Holleman is the editor of Open Salon.

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