The Battle for America 2010: De-Railing Russ Feingold

The battle over a proposed high-speed rail line that would connect a scant 70 miles between Wisconsin’s two largest cities and be funded by $810 million in federal stimulus money has become symbolic of the political cage match for one of Wisconsin’s Senate seats this November. An issue usually reserved for political catfights on the state level has spilled over into one of the most highly watched Senate races on the national scene. In a strange twist of political symbiosis, the fevered debate over high-speed rail in Wisconsin could well determine the outcome of Wisconsin’s Senate battle, which could in turn determine the fate of high-speed rail in our country.

In one corner is the challenger, Ron Johnson, a successful plastics executive and political newcomer who has raised about $1.8 million and injected $4.4 million of his own money into the campaign. Johnson, a fiscal conservative, believes the rail line is an example of needless and excessive Washington spending. “Wisconsin taxpayers will be on the hook for about $10 million per year for a costly train that few will ride,” he says, calling instead for investing in existing infrastructure.

In the other corner is career politician and Washington insider, Russ Feingold, who sadly, although seeking his fourth term is still considered the “junior” senator in Wisconsin. Feingold has been in political office since 1982 and is in favor of what would become a $1 billion high-speed rail line carrying passengers between Milwaukee and Madison at 110 mph. “This is in fact building a legitimate, environmentally sound infrastructure for the future of our state,” Feingold told a group of business leaders in Madison recently. He trumpets that the federal government has agreed to pay for it and joins the chorus of local Democrat cheerleaders who point out that if Wisconsin refuses the money, it will simply go to another high-speed rail project in another state -- a misguided “it’s not our money” mindset which an increasing number of American voters rightly think is in large part responsible for the deep federal deficit and our Godzilla of a national debt.

Whether the high-speed rail proposal is needed or will work in Wisconsin seems to be overshadowed by the fact that most of the money to pay for it will come from Washington. The rail proposal, part of $8 billion in economic stimulus grants awarded earlier this year to 13 rail corridors, is among the unfunded initiatives pushed by President Obama and strongly defended by Feingold. In January, Wisconsin’s “senior” senator, Herb Kohl, called on Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood to push for federal high-speed rail funding for Wisconsin. Despite massive opposition to the project, Wisconsin’s outgoing governor appears hell-bent on pushing it through and LaHood, in a July appearance in Wisconsin, declared, "There's no stopping it." That is -- unless Republicans garner enough power next year to derail it. The Wisconsin race between Feingold and Johnson may be, in part, a referendum on the future of high-speed rail in America.

The two combatants are now statistically tied according to a recent Rasmussen poll and the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington moved its ranking of the Wisconsin race from leaning Democratic to toss-up. With many Democrats and most independents running from President Obama and his policies, Johnson may be the odds-on favorite to win. That pro-rail champion Feingold is struggling against an anti-rail newcomer like Johnson will not be overlooked by other pro-rail Democrats across the country and could well affect their barometers on the issue. Democrats have prevailed in Wisconsin in the past six presidential elections, including Obama’s 14-point victory in 2008. Since 1992, Wisconsin has elected only Democratic U.S. senators, although often by slim margins. That may soon change.

Wisconsin’s next governor, on the other hand, is likely to be a Republican, and his coattails may be long. The Republican gubernatorial candidate favored in November is Scott Walker. Walker is adamantly opposed to the high-speed rail line and says if he's elected, he doesn’t want Wisconsin to be stuck with the bill and no train lines will be built anywhere in the state. Period. “I will put a stop to this boondoggle the day I take office,” he says. His Republican challenger, Mark Neumann, is promising to take the $810 million in federal stimulus money earmarked to build a high-speed rail line between Madison and Milwaukee and somehow use it for tax cuts.