Feingold to skip Obama rally in Wisconsin

Holly Bailey

President Obama heads to Milwaukee  onMonday, where he'll mark Labor Day at a statewide union event with other local Democratic candidates — except for one. Sen. Russ Feingold, who is facing a tougher-than-expected re-election campaign, is too busy to meet up with Obama this weekend.

It's the second time this summer that Feingold has dodged an Obama event — though in fairness, the Wisconsin senator did make an appearance at the president's most recent stop in the state last month.

Yet Feingold's decision to skip the Obama labor union rally is unusual, particularly since it's Labor Day weekend — the traditional kickoff of the fall campaign season— and unions have been Feingold's biggest boosters in the state. Feingold's disappearing act will be doubly conspicuous, since gubernatorial hopeful Tom Barrett, the other statewide Democratic candidate, is scheduled to be there.

In a historically progressive state, a photo-op with Obama would seem to be a good thing — though with the president's approval numbers sliding, the campaign payoff would be much diminished from what it might have been a year ago.

It's true that Obama remains generally popular in the state, but his approval rating has dipped to 49 percent, according to the most recent University of Wisconsin Badger poll — a drop of 11 points since last winter. That's a higher approval rating than in other key battleground states this fall, but it's unclear at this point whether Obama's standing would  hurt or help Feingold, who is virtually tied in the polls with his GOP opponent, businessman Ron Johnson.

Johnson has gained in the polls by trashing Feingold's votes on Obama-led agenda items like health care reform and last year's federal stimulus bill. And he has proved to be a serious financial challenger. In July and most of August, Johnson outraised Feingold, reporting $1.2 million in contributions, compared with the incumbent Dem's $900,000.  Feingold had more cash in the bank earlier this summer -- but Johnson has readily dipped into his own cash reserves  to bridge that gap, loaning his campaign more than $4.4 million, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's Craig Gilbert.

The race will be a major target for special interest spending this fall. Presumably, labor unions and Democratic groups will come to Feingold's defense. Meanwhile, outside conservative groups have named Feingold as one of their biggest targets this fall. Already, the American Action Network, a conservative group linked to former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), has spent nearly $400,000 on ads trashing Feingold on federal spending.

(Photo of Feingold and Obama: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)