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Wisconsin's Russ Feingold in Peril, But Still Practicing 'I Did It My Way' Politics

4 years ago
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RACINE, Wis. – After 18 years in Washington, Russ Feingold remains the senator who has built his career and his voting record around (hat tip: Oscar Wilde) the importance of being earnest. High-minded, idiosyncratic and sometimes exasperating to his fellow Democrats, the 57-year-old Feingold was the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and this year was the only Democrat to oppose Barack Obama's Wall Street reform act, arguing that it was not tough enough.
But Feingold is facing the toughest re-election campaign of his career (although his 1998 victory was a squeaker), not because of his different-drummer political pedigree but because (eek!) he is an incumbent Democrat. Trailing self-funded Republican plastics manufacturer Ron Johnson, a newcomer to politics, in every published poll since July, Feingold is under heavy fire for his votes for the health-care reform bill and the 2009 economic stimulus. As Republican State Chairman Reince Priebus puts it, gleefully mingling his metaphors, "Johnson's caught on like wildfire – he's the flavor of the day."
Sitting in a local campaign office in Racine Saturday afternoon, Feingold explained in an interview that what is bedeviling him "is not the independent votes – it's when I believed I did the right thing by supporting the president." Feingold went on to say, summarizing the GOP assault, "The people running this attack campaign against me are saying, 'Feingold always votes with Obama and Pelosi and Reid.'"
The embattled Democratic senator is alluding to ads like the recent Johnson spot that lambastes his health-care vote as the camera zooms in on the roll-call tally and a female narrator says, her voice dripping with bitter betrayal, "The official Congressional Record shows that Feingold toed the party line instead of listening to us." A Johnson radio commercial, featuring one of those fake conversations between actresses pretending to be ordinary voters infuriated by the health-care bill, ends with one character announcing, "I've voted for Russ Feingold in the past. But not this time."
Despite the pseudo-certainty fostered by the polls (a new McClatchy-Marist survey, giving Johnson a 7-point edge, implausibly enough showed only 3 percent of the voters undecided a month before the election), it would be a mistake to prematurely write off Feingold. "Looking at the polling, nothing has really moved," said Thomas Holbrooke, who chairs the political science department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "I don't really think that people have yet tuned in."
The two candidates, who have only shaken hands and murmured innocuous pleasantries to each other twice, will debate for the first of three times Friday night. New to politics and running with the imprimatur of the Tea Party movement (Johnson only declared his candidacy in May after former Gov.Tommy Thompson decided not to challenge Feingold), the Republican nominee is mostly known to Wisconsin voters as the shadowy "I approve this message" guy in 30-second TV spots. While the debate is unlikely to upstage the Packers-Redskins game on most Wisconsinites' weekend schedules, it will be the first time that many voters will see Johnson outside a scripted format.
Unlike other Tea Party favorites, Johnson did not have to prove his ultra-right-from-the-start bona fides in a bruising GOP primary, leaving Feingold with few tempting targets to portray his rival as outside the political mainstream. Feingold did jump on a Johnson comment (channeling Austrian laissez-faire economist Joseph Schumpeter) that "in a free-market capitalist system, there are always winners and losers. It's creative destruction." But that is a far cry from having a Republican opponent who has to deny favoring armed insurrection (Sharron Angle in Nevada) or opposing the direct election of senators (Ken Buck in Colorado) or has to begin a TV ad by saying to camera (Christine O'Donnell in Delaware), "I'm not a witch."
More than anything, this election will test Feingold's continuing embrace of unconventional I-did-it-my-way politics. In contrast to the wave of amnesia that has afflicted congressional Democrats as they wage Campaign 2010 from a fetal crouch, Feingold is the only major candidate this year who has dared to air an ad defending the provisions of the health-care bill, even though it never explicitly refers to the Obama legislation that dominated the headlines for months.
An ardent campaign reformer (who teamed up with former maverick John McCain to pass landmark 2002 campaign finance legislation), Feingold defied the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) in his white-knuckle 1998 campaign by demanding it take its attack ads off the air in Wisconsin. Feingold's objection was that these commercials were being paid for with unregulated "soft money" that his campaign reform legislation was then attempting to ban.
But this time around (even though political donations to the DSCC are now regulated by the McCain-Feingold act), Feingold is equally adamant that the party committee should let him fight his own battles against Johnson. (The DSCC, which is running advertising in six states, has not been on the air in Wisconsin).
"It's because these are almost always inherently attack ads based on cookie-cutter notions of how you should talk to the people of Wisconsin," Feingold responded after I pressed him for a reason for his stubborn resistance to a DSCC ad campaign. "I don't want that kind of help," Feingold said moments later. "I consider it to be outside help of a kind that is uncontrolled and tends to believe in a philosophy of slash-and-burn politics. That's frankly not who I am. I don't want to win that way."
This is a political year in which few imperiled Democrats are prissy about campaign tactics, since the party's unofficial slogan seems to be, "The Republican is worse." But for Russ Feingold, who often seems a throw-back to Wisconsin's early 20th century progressive reformers, process and principle are synonymous. As he put it, in words that few contemporary politicians would utter, "To me, not to have certain values about what it takes to win an election makes it not worth it to win an election. So I'm going to stick to those values. And if I lose because of it, so be it. And if I win because of it, even better."
Feingold may indeed lose simply because the letter "D" for "Democrat" appears next to his name. Or he may be defeated because his idea of how to run a Senate campaign remains locked in a 1992 time warp, the year when, as a fledgling statewide candidate, he taped his campaign promises to his garage door. But it is telling that Feingold, unlike almost anyone else in politics, is determined to bank it all on his old-fashioned, stiff-necked vision on how you seek public office in a democracy.

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