Wisconsin Democrat Russell Feingold, who often bucked his own party during an 18-year Senate career
, was swept away nonetheless Tuesday by a wealthy plastics manufacturer, Ron Johnson
, who called for replacing career politicians with "citizen legislators'' and vowed to "wipe off the Obama agenda and start over.''
Within hours of the polls closing, Johnson held a commanding lead of 54 percent to 44 percent.
In a refrain that echoed from Delaware to California this fall, Johnson often charged that his opponent "believes Washington can borrow, tax and spend our way to prosperity. I believe that's absolutely wrong and hurts our economy ... we need to bring common sense to Washington.''
Johnson had never before run for public office. But his ties to conservative politics reached back decades. A year ago he spoke at a tea party rally in Oshkosh, his home town, decrying the health care legislation then under debate in Congress.
"What we don't need is a bunch of politicians spending money they don't have, trying to figure out new ways to tax us and, in their spare time, arrogantly attempting to take over the finest health care system in the world," Johnson told the Oshkosh Tea Party on Oct. 10, 2009.
Almost from the time Johnson announced his candidacy last May, polls had shown Feingold was in trouble. Johnson threw $8 million of his own money into the race, in which the candidates' spending was about evenly matched, according to Federal Election Commission
, the economy dominated, with Johnson relentlessly attacking Feingold for being an avid Washington spender. Although Wisconsin's unemployment rate, at 7.8 percent, is well below the national average, Johnson's charges clearly resonated with voters fearful of the future and impatient for change.
Feingold tried to argue that his support for Obama's economic stimulus bill "was the right thing to do.'' But he conceded that "the full effects of these very good policies have not been fully felt." In an interview with Politics Daily,
Feingold acknowledged that "until people see far more progress in the economy they're gonna have doubts. That's human nature.''
Those doubts were reflected in a stinging rebuke of Feingold by his hometown newspaper, the Janesville Gazette. It endorsed Johnson, saying that Feingold "claims to be a fiscal conservative, but we see no change in Washington's spending habits.''
Ironically, Feingold had built his 18-year Senate record as a maverick. He was the only Democrat to oppose President Obama's Wall Street reform legislation. He was the co-author, with Sen. John McCain, of a major campaign finance law
bitterly opposed by many conservatives. That 2002 law, commonly called McCain-Feingold, was gutted by a Supreme Court ruling
earlier this year allowing unfettered corporate campaign contributions.
He has called climate-change science "lunacy, saying "I absolutely do not believe in the science of man-caused climate change." He has said extreme weather phenomena were better explained by sunspots
than an overload of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Johnson has also opposed gay marriage, saying that man-woman marriage has been around "for thousands of years ... and I just don't see any reason to change that.''