MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson and Democratic challenger Russ Feingold want to be elected to the U.S. Senate, but they don't talk much on the campaign trail about the years they've already spent there.
In Johnson's first television ad released this month, shot on the floor of a plastics company he used to run, the first-term Republican referred to himself as a manufacturer and not a senator seeking re-election.
"Career politicians manufacture hogwash, I manufacture plastic," Johnson says in the ad, even though he stopped working at Pacur once he went to Washington as a senator.
And Feingold, who served 18 years in the Senate before losing to Johnson in 2010, doesn't mention his experience in any of the five campaign ads he's run to date. He also didn't reference it at all when rallying Democratic insiders and supporters at the state convention earlier this month.
Both campaigns are purposefully positioning their candidates as outsiders, running away from any negatives that come with incumbency. Johnson's campaign insists he remains a "citizen legislator," despite spending the past five-plus years in Congress. And Feingold's camp maintains that everyone in Wisconsin knows he's a former senator, so his campaign is focusing on what voters are concerned about now.
The contest is critical to Democratic hopes of recapturing majority control of the Senate, and they would seem to have the edge considering the election comes in a presidential year in a state that hasn't backed a Republican's White House bid since Ronald Reagan.
Feingold was ahead of Johnson 51 percent to 42 percent in a Marquette University Law School poll of 666 likely voters released Wednesday. It was conducted between June 9 and Sunday and had a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points.
The gap was tighter among the broader field of 800 registered voters, with Feingold at 45 percent compared with 41 percent for Johnson.
Feingold has been careful to craft his campaign as if he were running for the first time, emphasizing his travels to all 72 counties and priority issues like reducing college student loan debt, raising the federal minimum wage and fighting free trade deals like the pending Trans Pacific Partnership.
"The only thing Sen. Johnson has manufactured since going to Washington is a record of blind partisanship, dysfunction, and economic policies that only benefit millionaires like himself," Feingold spokesman Michael Tyler said.
Johnson spokesman Brian Reisinger said the campaign was "proud to talk about Ron and his record of accomplishment during his short time in office." He cited Johnson's work passing 83 bills that went through the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs that he chairs. Reisinger also noted Johnson's committee leading an investigation into patient deaths at the Veterans Affairs medical facility in Tomah, Wisconsin.
But on the campaign trail, Johnson has decried the long election season while emphasizing his 30-year career in the private sector. Even at his campaign launch, staged on the manufacturing floor at Pacur last month, Johnson downplayed his political ambition.
"Why did I leave a life I love, a life I would love to return to, quite honestly?" Johnson asked Pacur employees. Before answering his own question with his campaign talking points, Johnson told his former co-workers: "I can't tell you how good this feels to be back here in this plant."
Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sbauerAP and find more of his work at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/scott-bauer