By DINESH RAMDE
Associated Press Writer
MILWAUKEE (AP) — A businessman who sought support from the tea party toppled one of the Senate’s most prominent liberals Tuesday to become the state’s first Republican senator in 12 years.
In his bid to bring down three-term Democrat Russ Feingold, Ron Johnson touted his accounting and business experience, saying he knew how to create jobs and balance budgets.
Johnson, who ran a plastics company for 31 years, rose to prominence after giving two well-received tea party speeches. He said his top priority would be to repeal the health care overhaul.
Feingold campaigned heavily on his reputation as a maverick, billing himself as an independent who fights for the people of Wisconsin instead of kowtowing to his party or special interests.
Johnson, who spent about $7 million of his own money on his campaign, painted Feingold as a Washington insider who contributed to the nation’s debt. Feingold countered that his challenger offered only rhetoric instead of substantive solutions.
The contest was one of the nation’s most-watched Senate races.
Feingold famously worked with Republican Sen. John McCain in 2002 to pass the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill, which attempted to limit the influence of special-interest money in political campaigns.
However, a recent Supreme Court decision rolled back some of the law’s provisions, making it easier for corporations and unions to spend money in elections. That decision directly affected the Wisconsin race: Outside groups poured $1.7 million into ads supporting Johnson compared to $140,000 for Feingold.
At first, Feingold’s seat had been seen as one of the safer ones. Observers initially predicted that former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson was the only Republican who could give the 57-year-old Feingold a serious challenge. When Thompson declined to run, Republicans seemed to have no worthy alternative.
But Johnson jumped in the race and ran on his business credentials.
Johnson, 55, scored well in early polls, resonating with voters who felt Feingold had been in office too long or who were frustrated that President Barack Obama had not delivered on his message of change.