Statewide ballots in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin next year will look awfully familiar.
First-term Republican Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin are likely to face off in 2016 against the same Democratic opponents they defeated in the 2010 tea party-fueled GOP wave. That would be former Rep. Joe Sestak and ex-Sen. Russ Feingold, respectively.
Of the rematch pair, Feingold stands the better chance of getting his old job back. The three-term senator, a Rhodes Scholar and Harvard Law School grad, was among the most prominent casualties of the 2010 GOP electoral romp.
In his Senate days Feingold was an iconoclast. Though generally a reliable liberal vote for the Democratic leadership, he tended to annoy his party colleagues at inopportune times. Feingold was the only Democratic senator voting to extend the early 1999 Senate impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton. Two-and-a-half years later Feingold cast the sole lone vote against the Patriot Act, defying post-9/11 concerns about national security. And Feingold was always somewhat of a deficit hawk, zeroing in on colleagues pork projects with zeal.
But his act wore thin in 2010. Johnson, a wealthy accountant and business owner, successfully portrayed Feingold as a D.C. insider, winning 52-47. Now it looks like Feingold’s coming back, having recently resigned his State Department post as an envoy to Africa. And the former senator isn’t denying chatter of his imminent entry into the race.
Sen. Johnson is already throwing heat. A “‘creature of Washington,’ he compiled a voting record that had him joining the ranks of Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, Barbara Boxer, and Hillary Clinton as the #1 liberal in the nation,” Johnson wrote in a recent fundraising email.
Expect similar tactics in the Pennsylvania Senate race. There former Democratic Rep. Sestak recently launched his long-expected challenge to Republican Sen. Pat Toomey.
The former Navy officer served two terms in the House before seeking the Senate seat in 2010. He defeated then-Sen. Arlen Specter — who had switched parties a year earlier — in the Democratic primary before losing to Toomey by just two points, in an atrocious election cycle for Democrats nationwide.
Sestak is the front-runner to win the Democratic nomination in 2016, but he could face a primary. And Toomey will be a tough target. He’s a strong fiscal conservative, who regularly defied GOP leaders during his 1999-2005 House tenure.
Toomey gave up his congressional seat to challenge then-GOP Sen. Specter in the 2004 Republican primary. Specter long had gone his own way, even famously voting “not proven” in the Clinton impeachment trial. But he narrowly staved off Toomey’s challenge.
After a stint as president of the fiscally conservative Club For Growth, Toomey returned to electoral politics in 2010. With national political sentiment moving to the right, Specter abandoned the Republicans after nearly 30 years in the Senate. But Democratic party regulars weren’t biting, backing Sestak instead.
“The general election presented a clear contrast on issues,” writes the 2014 Almanac of American Politics. “Sestak had voted not only for the stimulus bill, but for the Democrats’ health care overhaul and their cap-and-trade bill to limit carbon emissions. Toomey called for extending the Bush-era tax cuts for everyone, including the wealthy, and for lower corporate and capital gains tax rates.”
Many of those issues will return to the fray in a 2016 Sestak-Toomey matchup. Toomey has sought to moderate his image, as a sponsor of a failed April 2013 proposal to expand gun show purchase background checks, in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut elementary school massacre.
And Sestak’s personal style remains a potential liability. “From the moment he entered the House in 2007, Sestak developed a reputation as a man with a nasty temper who was almost impossible to work for, and he churned through staff at an alarming rate,” liberal Daily Kos Elections wrote recently, adding: “This was nothing new, though: The Navy had demoted Sestak in 2005, citing the ‘poor command climate’ he’d fostered.”
Looking to net five seats to ensure control of the Senate again, Democrats will heavily target Toomey and Johnson in 2016. Whether those plans to do so with their vanquished rivals works remains to be seen.
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