Answer: quite possibly, the margin of victory for Republicans in the United States Senate.
According to a new report from Public Policy Polling today, the largely unknown Johnson (a plastics manufacturer from Oshkosh) is within two points of the Badger State’s liberal stalwart, Senator Russ Feingold. If the Wisconsin seat flips, it puts Republicans very close to retaking the Senate. Here’s the succint explanation.
Republicans currently have 41 seats in the Senate. Since the tie-breaking vote in the Senate belongs to the Democratic Vice President, Republicans would need a net pickup of 10 seats to retake the majority — an extremely high threshold.
To start with, that means having no Republican incumbents get beat. That shouldn’t be too hard. There aren’t many GOP incumbents around these days, and the ones that are are fairly safe. Only North Carolina’s Richard Burr looks vulnerable this year and he’ll probably be able to ride it out.
The next step is hanging on to the seven open GOP seats: one due to a Republican primary in Utah, the other six owing to retirements in Kansas, Ohio, Kentucky, Missouri, Florida, and New Hampshire. Utah, Kansas, and New Hampshire look very safe right now. Kentucky will be close and will likely hinge on how cautious Rand Paul can learn to be. Florida has scrambled into a three-way race with Charlie Crist’s decision to run as an independent, but look for Marco Rubio to make a strong showing as the year continues. Ohio and Missouri will likely stay tight up through election day.
Assuming a perfect defense, then, Republicans will still need to pickup 10 seats on offense. There are a few pieces of low-lying fruit: North Dakota Governor John Hoeven will almost certaintly win the seat being vacated by Byron Dorgan. The odds also look quite favorable for Dan Coats in Indiana and Mike Castle in Delaware to pick up open seats, and for John Boozman in Arkansas to defeat incumbent Blanche Lincoln.
Factor in those wins and Republicans still need six seats for a majority. And with the Wisconsin race competitive, they now have seven prospects. In addition to Johnson’s challenge to Feingold, there are also serious threats to Democratic incumbents in California, Nevada, Colorado, and Washington. With Republicans competitive for open seats in Illinois and Pennsylvania, the Wisconsin race actually gives the GOP an ever-so-slight margin of error for taking back a majority come election day.
And who is this great white hope of the upper midwest? George Will’s profile in the Washington Post last month provides some insight. If he’s right, this may be one more member of an exceptional senate class in 2010. To wit:
The theme of his campaign, the genesis of which was an invitation to address a Tea Party rally, is: “First of all, freedom.” Then? “Then you’ve got to put meat on the bones.” He gets much of his meat from the Wall Street Journal’s opinion pages. And from a Wisconsin congressman, Paul Ryan, whose “road map” for entitlement reform Johnson praises. Health care? “Mitch Daniels has the solution.” Indiana’s Republican governor has offered state employees the choice of consumer-controlled health savings accounts, and 70 percent now choose them.
“The most basic right,” Johnson says, “is the right to keep your property.” Remembering the golden age when, thanks to Ronald Reagan, the top income tax rate was 28 percent, Johnson says: “For a brief moment we were 72 percent free.” Johnson’s daughter — now a nurse in neonatal intensive care — was born with a serious heart defect. The operations “when her heart was only the size of a small plum” made him passionate about protecting the incentives that bring forth excellent physicians.
This sounds like a conservative who nows how to connect first principles to daily governance. Dare we dream such a thing?