US & Canada

Wisconsin Democrats fight to hold back Republican wave

First lady Michelle Obama speaks at a campaign event for Sen Russ Feingold in Milwaukee
Image caption First lady Michelle Obama speaks at a campaign event for Democratic Senator Russ Feingold in Milwaukee

All signs are that the Republican Party is going to pick up several Senate seats in the mid-term elections in two weeks time. One of their targets is Russ Feingold, the three-term Democratic Senator from Wisconsin. The state voted strongly for President Obama two years ago - but the mood has changed.

On a crisp October morning, Jim Hoffman is hard at work knocking on doors in Elkhorn, Wisconsin.

He's a volunteer for the local Republican Party and, clipboard in hand, he's finding out how much support his party's candidate for Senate might have in this area.

As Mr Hoffman marches briskly between homes, piles of newly fallen leaves crunching underfoot, he has a spring in his step.

Two years ago he saw the whole country leaning left, but that has changed he says.

"This year we see its 70 or 80% going back to the right," he says.

"It's probably the most dramatic swing I've seen in the eight or 10 years I've been doing this work."

There are several reasons why the tide has turned in many states, and you can find most of them in Wisconsin.

Jobs

At a car wash on a street in north Milwaukee, two young African American men hang out with a friend getting his car cleaned.

They have nothing else to do.

"All of us need jobs," says one of them, who's been out of work for nearly two years.

Image caption Republican candidate Ron Johnson is making his first run for a public office

"If we don't work, we'll be on the street hustling. We've got to feed our kids," he says.

A couple of decades ago this part of Milwaukee was a busy industrial centre, home to several major manufacturing plants.

Now, only the hulking shells of vast factories line the main road. The last major employer closed its doors four years ago with the loss of 9,000 jobs.

Those still at work have had to make tough choices.

For example, last month Harley-Davidson, makers of the iconic motorbike, reached a deal with its unions.

In exchange for a pay-freeze, some job losses and the introduction of temporary workers - who will get lower pay and no benefits - the company agreed not to move out of the state.

The plan was backed by unions.

"You're still going to keep about 650 to 700 people working," says Mike Masik, local president of the union representing the Harley workers.

"If we didn't settle, they were going to close the plant and move away and nobody would be working. We had no choice," he says.

The average American worker is hurting. Unemployment is at 9.6% and wages are not rising for those who are in work.

The Democratic administration and congressional leaders in Washington are being blamed by many for failing to put things right.

They are also being accused by their Republican opponents of wracking up national debt and imposing unpopular economic measures that the country can't afford.

Healthcare

As he campaigns to oust the once popular Senator Feingold, the Republican candidate Ron Johnson attacks President Obama's healthcare reforms over and over again.

Mr Johnson is a successful businessman who has never run for any public office.

But he is finding a receptive audience for his key messages: healthcare reform means the government in Washington telling you what to do, and stimulus money is wasteful.

The stimulus package was the nearly $800bn in federal spending and tax cuts designed to revive the economy and save jobs.

But saved jobs are harder to sell to the public than created ones - as Jim Doyle, the Democratic Governor of Wisconsin, puts it, they don't get the same amount of attention as jobs that have been lost.

"I say to people, if you want to see the stimulus money at work you should go to the local school and about every 10th teacher wouldn't be teaching there if we hadn't had the help that came from President Obama," he says.

It is not enough to make an average American feel that life is improving, especially when they hear about the money the government had to borrow to fund the spending spree.

All of which means the Republican candidates have plenty of political ammunition with which they can attack the Democrats this year, and Senator Feingold is feeling the heat.

He likes to describe himself as a "Wisconsin Independent".

In his 18 years in the Senate, the 57-year-old Democrat has voted often against his own party. But he voted for healthcare reform, and for the stimulus bill, which means that like Democratic incumbents in many states, he is now vulnerable.

No energy

And there's another problem for Democrats like Senator Feingold.

At a picnic in Madison he's greeted by cheers and cries of "Six more years!" by supporters who have spent the day knocking on doors and making phone calls on his behalf.

They are mostly trades union members and confirmed Democratic Party voters, but they acknowledge that it is going to be hard to drum up the enthusiasm of two years ago when President Obama was elected.

"There's been a disillusionment amongst some of the Democrats," says David Boetcher of the electricians' union.

Healthcare reform didn't go far enough for many of them, he says, and the government also failed to pass new environmental laws.

"A lot of the people who were super energised, are disheartened," he says, comparing 2008 with this year.

On the other hand, he adds: "The people who were against Obama are mad as heck and willing to go through burning coals to get to the election booth."

Yet another reason why Republicans are expected to do well in two weeks' time, and why Russ Feingold is fighting for his political life.