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

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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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56 Comments

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hwtchhm2

Good-bye Feingold who is nothing more than a Blue-Dog Dem. He did the right thing by voting for the Healthcare bill. He did the wrong thing by turning his back on President Obama during his mid-term election and he lost as a result of that. I say good riddins. Oh, and he's voting against the DADT and the Dream Act. Feingold is useless!

December 21 2010 at 11:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
jim

God Bless Senator Feingold. I don't always agree with him as a registered Republican, but as a transplant to WI - I sincerely appreciate his principled stand. It was so telling inthe second debate when he challenged Mr. Johnson to call on third-party ads to be pulled or at least to disclose their sources of funding. Mr. Johnson failed terribly when given a chance to to be an ethical agent for conservative values. I was embarrassed for him and our party.

October 13 2010 at 5:09 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
newportblu

Feingold, the Democrat has suddenly morphed into Feingold the INDEPENDENT in many of his sophomoric ads. His mistake was in forgetting that he was elected to represent the people of Wisconsin who clearly were against Obamamcare. That is the exact moment he lost my vote. So it doesn't really matter how dumb his ads really are...and believe me...they are way dumbed down. He is the master of taking things out of context and running with them, truth be damned. This is all too apparent this time around. Maybe because I've been paying more attention than in the past. He will be the victim of his own bad judgement and poor choice. And he doesn't even have the guts to own it. By the way I especially love the ad in front of that 1992 garage door. All it makes me think is...wow Russ got to keep the house! So how many wives got to live there?

October 06 2010 at 12:28 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Crescent

I wish, I was in his district to vote for him. This is a great politician and an American who believes in restoration of constitution and fight the powerful. He is one of my ideal people in today's politics. May he win, Amen.

October 05 2010 at 9:42 PM Report abuse -10 rate up rate down Reply
plawson329

Good. Term limits, term limits, term limits. No more career politicians. All they want is to get and keep power.

October 05 2010 at 9:25 PM Report abuse +13 rate up rate down Reply
an80sreaganite

This is also the same Feingold who ran on term limits in 1992, promising change the rules to 2 terms & out. I guess he got so caught up in his integrity, he forgot that "teeny,tiny,little" promise..... I would post a link to them, but for some reason they all seem to have disappeared. How could that be? I sure as soon as a man of such amazing character realizes the mistake, he'll post those ads back on his youtube account. Hey. Wait. Maybe if he gets elected in Nov, THIS TIME he'll vote for term limits. Yeah, that must be it.....

October 05 2010 at 9:11 PM Report abuse +13 rate up rate down Reply
Kelly

Jeff5: 18 PM Oct 5, 2010There's one problem with attacking Feingold on his vote for health care reform: Most voters agree with him. Actually Jeff, 52% OF Americans do not support Health Care reform because we cant afford it right now. Plus now my premiums are going up and this is after the president said they wouldnt.

October 05 2010 at 8:51 PM Report abuse +11 rate up rate down Reply
vallesula

Russ, it's nothing personal; it's strickly what's best for the nation and our people. Youve been an integral part of grid-lock for too long. The time has come, for you and all of those that were participants in the grid-lock games you guys have made the norm , to go. When up for re-election, and to include Cornyn, Shummer, Darbin, and that senator from South Carolina - sorry,can't recall his name, but he was a military judge and McCain's pal ( and to include McCain in the mix - all incumbents !).

October 05 2010 at 7:28 PM Report abuse +11 rate up rate down Reply
1gjc

When needed, Feingold ALWAYS votes the Dem party line. Russ only votes against the Democrats when it’s clear his vote will have no impact. The Dem leadership releases Russ to vote his “conscious” when the outcome is certain - when his vote isn’t needed. He’s the master of the symbolic throw-away vote. There’s not one instanced of a Feingold vote,one that actually made a difference, going against the Dem party line.

October 05 2010 at 6:02 PM Report abuse +14 rate up rate down Reply
Jeff

There's one problem with attacking Feingold on his vote for health care reform: Most voters agree with him.

October 05 2010 at 5:18 PM Report abuse -15 rate up rate down Reply

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