Republican U.S. Senator Ron Johnson and Democratic challenger Russ Feingold meet tonight in their first debate of the 2016 campaign. The two candidates will appear on stage in Green Bay for a debate sponsored by the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, which will be broadcast statewide starting at 7 p.m.
It will be the first time the two have debated since the 2010 campaign, in a race where their roles were reversed. Feingold is trying to unseat Johnson, after the Oshkosh businessman knocked him out of the Senate six years ago.
UW-Madison associate professor of journalism Mike Wagner says tonight’s debate gives the public an opportunity to hear from the candidates in an environment they don’t completely control. “So far we’ve only heard campaign speeches and campaign ads that are pretty tightly managed by both sides,” he notes.
While Wagner says debates are unlikely to sway a large number of votes, they can still have an impact on a race recent polls show is very close. “A result in this debate that looks like a clear win for one side or the other might have an effect of half a point or a full point in the polls…but that is actually significant in a race that’s as close as this one.”
A Marquette University Law School poll released this week showed Feingold ahead of Johnson by just two points among likely voters, well within the margin of error. Other recent polls also show the race is extremely close, with less than four weeks to go before the election.
Johnson and Feingold also face Libertarian candidate Phil Anderson in November, who was not invited to tonight’s debate.