Politics & Policy

Russ on the Ropes

In Wisconsin, Senator Feingold did not expect such a strong challenge from a political unknown.

Things are looking up for Sen. Russ Feingold (D., Wis.). A new poll from McClatchy-Marist shows him trailing his Republican challenger, Ron Johnson, by seven points — a significant improvement over earlier polls that showed him behind by double digits.

Several weeks ago, when Feingold started referring to himself as the underdog in the race, it might have passed for sensible political posturing — a harkening back to Feingold’s first Senate campaign in 1992, when he shocked the political establishment in Wisconsin by upsetting two well-known candidates in the Democratic primary before going on to win the general election. Now it is simply an accurate depiction of reality.

Even taking into account the powerful anti-incumbent, anti-Democratic sentiment pervading the electorate this year, few could have predicted that the 18-year incumbent Feingold would find himself in such dire straits heading into November. “The idea that he could lose was simply unimaginable several months ago,” said Kenneth R. Mayer, a political-science professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Even Republican officials admit they are somewhat confounded by Feingold’s precipitous fall from grace. Very few would argue that Russ Feingold isn’t a likeable guy. Before now, even fewer would have claimed he lacks political savvy.

Starting with that surprise victory in 1992, Feingold has sought — not without success — to cultivate the image of a political maverick. During his three terms in office, he voted against his party almost 900 times. He fought hard for campaign-finance reform and eschewed — until now — negative campaign tactics like attack ads and out-of-context mischaracterizations.

On the left, Feingold remains a much-beloved figure for his steadfast opposition to the war in Afghanistan (he voted against President Obama’s troop surge) and for his “progressive” stance on bills such as the Patriot Act (he was the only senator to vote against it) and financial regulatory reform (he voted against the bill because it “didn’t go far enough”).

This may have worked for Feingold in the past. In 2004 — not a great year for Democrats — Feingold coasted to a third term by twelve points. His opponent that year, Republican Tim Michels, had a résumé very similar to Ron Johnson’s. Unfortunately for Feingold, the portion of the electorate that is fired up to vote this year is unlikely to be impressed by his so-called ideological purity. But to his credit (or detriment, depending on how you look at it), Feingold is sticking to his guns.

Just last week, in a sit-down interview with a Madison news station, Feingold said that while he would prefer to see Osama bin Laden killed in combat, he does not believe the al-Qaeda leader should be sentenced to death if captured alive, a position that puts Feingold at odds with nearly two-thirds of Americans. “He deserves to be executed for his crimes,” Feingold said. “But I am a person who believes that we should not use execution as a means of our justice system.”

As if that weren’t enough, Feingold in that same interview reiterated his support for building a mosque near Ground Zero, which 63 percent of Americans oppose, using a peculiar analogy. “Son of Sam, the guy who killed all those people in New York, he was Jewish, okay?” Feingold said. “Does that mean you can’t have a synagogue near where Son of Sam killed people?”

Standing firm on such issues may be a good way to draw attention from the liberal Hollywood set and interest groups such as MoveOn.org, but a bad way to campaign for reelection in 2010. Mainstream voters are increasingly frustrated by what they believe is the federal government’s disregard for their concerns, and hearing statements like these from sitting senators is likely to exacerbate those feelings.

Feingold’s increasingly erratic behavior on the campaign trail suggests that he — like almost everyone else — did not expect such a strong challenge from a political unknown like Ron Johnson. Since it became clear that Feingold was facing the fight of his political life, his commitment to clean politics has unraveled. The same Russ Feingold who once urged his opponent to sign a “Clean Campaign Pledge” in 2004 has run a series of ads falsely accusing Johnson of wanting to drill for oil in the Great Lakes and take away Social Security. In an attempt to drive home the underdog theme, Feingold told voters he has been outspent in every campaign he’s ever run, a claim that, according to PolitiFact Wisconsin, “confounds logic.”

Recently, in a particularly bizarre episode, after initially saying he would not attend a September 28 rally with President Obama at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Feingold abruptly reconsidered, flying in from Washington just hours before the event began. During the rally, Feingold read and rarely deviated from a prepared script — very atypical of him — and seemed a bit boring as he attempted to rouse his liberal base. “It’s phony,” Feingold told the crowd of more than 26,000. “This doesn’t look like an enthusiasm gap to me. But the Republicans are already dancing in the end zone.”

No, this is what an enthusiasm gap looks like:

Among likely voters in Wisconsin, a full 58 percent of conservatives say they are very enthusiastic about voting, compared with just 32 percent of liberals and 41 percent of moderates. The latest Fox News battleground-state poll shows Johnson leading Feingold 52 to 44 percent among likely voters, with just 3 percent undecided and only 10 percent saying they could still change their minds before Election Day. Likely independent voters support Johnson by a margin of nearly two to one. To put those numbers in perspective, Feingold trails by just two points among registered voters — the fact that so many more of Johnson’s supporters say they are likely to vote indicates that enthusiasm, not raw numbers, is causing the gap.

In many ways, it is impossible to separate Feingold’s political misfortunes from those of President Obama, who, despite winning the state with 56 percent of the vote in 2008, is deeply unpopular in Wisconsin. Since taking office, Obama’s approval rating in the Badger State has plunged precipitously — from 70 percent in January 2009 to a paltry 41 percent as of last week.

More than two-thirds of Wisconsin voters say they are angry about the federal government’s policies, including 41 percent who are “Very Angry.” Wisconsinites opposed Obamacare to begin with, and now favor its repeal by a margin of 53 to 38 percent. Feingold supported the bill in spite of that opposition, and even released a new ad defending some provisions of the law, at a time when most Democrats have been distancing themselves as much as possible from Obamacare.

Feingold’s association with that unpopular legislation, as well as with the federal stimulus package, has rendered his reputation as an “independent voice” all but meaningless, particularly in a state that has seen unemployment rise almost 30 percent since Obama took office. On the other hand, voters have found Johnson’s experience as a small-business owner very appealing in this environment.

“Russ Feingold’s biggest problem is his image, this ‘Mr. Clean’ Washington image,” Wisconsin GOP chairman Reince Priebus says. “Voters just aren’t buying it, and there is nothing worse in politics than losing your credibility.”

State Republican officials are increasingly confident about their chances, though it’s probably too early for a political juggernaut like Feingold to be written off. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has so far refrained from predicting victory in the race, but has promised Johnson “whatever help he needs to maintain his lead.”

Feingold shocked a lot of people by winning in 1992. This year, Johnson is poised to follow in his footsteps.

 Andrew Stiles writes for National Review Onlines Battle ’10 blog.

Andrew StilesAndrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online. He previously worked at the Washington Free Beacon, and was an intern at The Hill newspaper. Stiles is a 2009 ...

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