Magazine | August 16, 2010, Issue

A Clash of Opposites

Sen. Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat, finds himself in a hot race with an Oshkosh businessman

Not long ago, two friends were talking about the current election season. Both of them are conservative, but one especially dislikes the McCain-Feingold law (which restricted campaign finance and political speech). She said, “Both of them are up for reelection this year — McCain and Feingold. Wouldn’t it be great if they lost? Oh, it would be Christmas morning!” That Christmas is not likely to come for her. Sen. John McCain, in Arizona, will probably win his Republican primary on August 24 — and, of course, go on to beat the Democrat in the general. But Sen. Russ Feingold, the longtime Democrat in Wisconsin? He may actually lose to the Republican nominee. And that is an astonishing development, in an astonishing political year.

Feingold’s all-but-certain opponent will be Ron Johnson, a businessman from Oshkosh (b’gosh). Johnson has to win a Republican primary on September 14, but everyone expects him to do that. And the race between him and Feingold is essentially tied — this despite the fact that Johnson has been in politics only a few months. He announced in May. In mid-July, Rasmussen came out with a stunning poll that showed Johnson ahead of Feingold by a point: 47 percent to 46 percent. Democrats cried, “Republican poll!” Okay. But a couple of weeks earlier, a Democratic firm, Public Policy Polling, had Feingold ahead by only two points: 45 to 43. By all appearances, the race is a dead heat. And that can’t be good news for the longtime incumbent.

Wisconsin swings a little, but it has been pretty much a Democratic state for a while, certainly at the presidential level. The last time the state went for a Republican, it was for Ronald Reagan in 1984 (and that’s when every state went for Reagan, except for Minnesota, Walter Mondale’s home turf — and even that was a close call). But Wisconsin, like the rest of the nation, is restless and quirky this year. Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, surveyed the landscape and decided not to run for reelection. The Republican will probably win that race.

And something jolting happened in the U.S. House. David Obey, the Wisconsin Democrat who took office way back in 1969, decided not to run again. He is chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and a very big deal. But he was facing a tough, interesting Republican challenger, Sean Duffy, and he was also facing that strange, new mood. It seemed like a good time to retire. As Bob Kasten, the Republican ex-senator from Wisconsin, says, Obey’s retirement was “a huge kick in the gut for the Democrats in Wisconsin” — and, in a way, for Democrats nationally. But Obey was not without a lovely parting gift: national health care, a.k.a. Obamacare. The veteran lefty said, “I have been waiting for that moment for 41 years, and its arrival — finally — made all the frustrations of public life worth it.”

Russ Feingold was elected to the Senate in 1992, when he beat Kasten (who had been elected in the big Reagan and Republican year of 1980). Until May, he had no Republican challenger to give him too much worry. Former governor Tommy Thompson — who ran briefly for president in 2008 — considered a run for the Senate, but demurred. Then came this upstart, Johnson. He had never given any thought to running for political office. But in October, he attended a “tea party” in Oshkosh, giving a speech. Mainly, he defended the “producers of America,” as he says. And he made a particular defense of doctors, who he thought had been demonized in the health-care debate. Johnson has very strong feelings about American medicine: “My first child was born with a serious heart defect, and I know from personal experience how wonderful our health-care system is. I also know how important it is that we have the ability to seek out the best medical treatments.” Johnson believes that Obamacare will destroy innovation and opportunity in this field.

#page#After the tea-party speech, strangers approached Johnson to say, “Why doesn’t someone like you run?” Johnson thought that was a crazy idea — until Obamacare was passed and signed. That was in March. And it was “the final straw,” he says, the event that tipped him into running. He figured, “Maybe there comes a time when a guy like me ought to run.” You can’t always sit around waiting for someone else. And he is worried about far more than Obamacare, emblematic as this new system is. “I spent 31 years building a business, and now we see politicians spending without constraint, really pushing the United States of America to the brink of bankruptcy. We in the private sector, with some business experience, have a responsibility to step up to the plate and offer some alternatives.”

Russ Feingold is a classic “progressive.” He idolized Bobby Kennedy, and, like RFK, sees government as the engine of great moral and social good. He has been in politics virtually his entire adult life — since shortly after he graduated from law school. In common with McCain, he does not lack for self-esteem: He believes in his value to the Senate and to the country. He has always styled himself a “maverick,” and he has some votes to prove it: For instance, he was the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act; and he voted against TARP, the bailout legislation. But he has been a proud supporter of the basic Obama agenda: voting for the “stimulus” package and, of course, for national health care. He recently aired an ad entitled “Penny Pincher.” He said, “In Wisconsin, we don’t spend money we don’t have — we pinch our pennies. That’s how we do things here. And Washington needs to learn that lesson.” The Johnson people retorted that politicians who support the stimulus and Obamacare forfeit their right to call themselves penny pinchers. A Green Bay talk-show host, Jerry Bader, quipped, “‘Russ Feingold the Penny Pincher’ is like ‘Britney Spears the Nun.’”

Johnson was born in 1955 (two years after Feingold). He grew up in Minnesota, where his dad was treasurer of the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church. Both of the candidate’s parents had grown up on farms. Young Ron did some farm work himself. He says he has always been a hard worker, and believes in that ethic. Here is a snippet from his campaign bio: “At the age of 15, Ron started paying taxes when he began working at Walgreen’s Grill. He only started as a dishwasher, but he quickly rose through the ranks to become a night manager before reaching the age of 16.” He worked his way through college — all that American Dream stuff. In 1979, he moved to Oshkosh, and built up a company called Pacur. It is a plastics manufacturer. You will recall the most famous piece of advice in movie history: “Plastics,” says the family friend to the young man in The Graduate. “There’s a great future in plastics.” Johnson remarks, “It has worked for me.” Pacur now has more than 100 employees and robust profits.

Naturally, Feingold lays a charge against Johnson: Richie Rich! He has accused Johnson of having an “elitist vision of reality.” Johnson, says Feingold, is “not operating in the real world. He’s operating in the world of a very wealthy individual and his company.” This disgusts Johnson, who replies that he knows far more about how an economy works, and how to create jobs, than this creature of Democratic politics. Moreover, says Johnson, it’s about time somebody served in the Senate who knows what it’s like to live under the government’s policies and strictures.

#page#Feingold has another charge: Extremist! Outside the mainstream! Extremist, extremist! What he means is, Johnson is a conservative Republican. He is unapologetically for the free market. He is skeptical of the U.N. and of the global-warming crusade. He is pro-life and anti-gay-marriage. Where immigration is concerned, he is opposed to “blanket amnesty.” And so on. Feingold has issued a warning about Johnson: “He hasn’t even said he supports the Civil Rights Act”! He hasn’t said he supports Mother’s Day, either. For the record, Johnson indeed supports the Civil Rights Act (I asked). (Not sure about Mother’s Day.) Johnson is somewhat amazed at the Democrats’ efforts to brand him a kook: “I come from a place called Oshkosh, Wisconsin. I played rec-league basketball and softball until the age of 44. I’m one of the normal folks, honestly. My standard work uniform was blue jeans and a collared shirt.”

Johnson is something of a fusion candidate in that he has much of the “tea party” behind him and the “establishment,” too: He has been endorsed by the Wisconsin Republican party; and the national Republican party is behind him as well. So, for good measure, is the Club for Growth. Johnson takes umbrage at the way the Democrats, in and out of the media, portray the tea partiers: as a bunch of racists and boobs. The reason he can’t accept this portrayal is that he has actually been to their events and knows them. “The people I see are just decent, hard-working, patriotic, tax-paying Americans who are as concerned about the direction of this country as I am. They’re just good solid Americans, and they don’t deserve to be denigrated.”

Here is another Feingold charge — a triple one: Oil lover! Oil driller! Oil investor! Interviewed in early June, Johnson said the following about ANWR, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: “ANWR may be environmentally sensitive, but it may be easier to drill up there and with less environmental impact than trying to drill in very deep water. You know, these oil rigs are being forced so far offshore. By doing that we’re just increasing the risks.” In a later interview, he was asked, “Do you want to open up more of the United States — the continental United States — to drilling? I mean, would you support drilling like in the Great Lakes for example, if there was oil found there, or using more exploration in Alaska, in ANWR, those kinds of things?” Johnson answered, “Yeah, you know, the bottom line is, we are an oil-based economy, and there’s nothing we’re going to do to get off of that for many, many years. So we have to be realistic and recognize that fact. We have to get the oil where it is, but we need to do it responsibly. We need to utilize American ingenuity and American technology to make sure we do it environmentally sensitively and safely.”

Some hell broke loose. The environmentalist gods had been offended. Johnson’s campaign pleaded that he had been talking about ANWR, not the Great Lakes — where drilling is illegal. But Feingold fired up an ad in which he said of Johnson, “He’s willing to hand over the Great Lakes to the oil companies.” Johnson fired up a counter-ad saying, No way. He accused Feingold of “mud-slinging” and of failing to protect the Great Lakes himself. (This latter charge was tendentious.)

As for investments, Johnson’s portfolio includes some shares in oil companies — even in the dastardly BP. The Democrats have made as much hay as possible out of this. (By the way, one of Johnson’s early jobs was baling hay.) Johnson says, “I don’t feel guilty” about the oil investments, even the one in BP. What he feels is poorer. “I wish I didn’t own” the BP stock, he says, “because it hasn’t been a very good investment over the past three months. But that’s the way capitalism works. If a company does something bad, it suffers, and so do the shareholders. There should be consequences to things.”

#page#Johnson will be selling off a number of his stocks to finance his campaign. One of his gifts to the Republican party is that he is a self-financer. But he is also doing what he can to raise money from others, who are, in fact, responding. Feingold should have plenty of cash on hand. But, as Bob Kasten points out, he may feel a bit of a squeeze, because “the national liberal money is diluted.” Liberals are having to defend their seats all over the place, including expensive California, where Sen. Barbara Boxer is in a fight. That could leave less for Feingold in Wisconsin.

He is facing a mightily unusual politician in Johnson — actually, a non-politician, even an anti-politician. I ask Johnson about writers, statesmen, or others who may have inspired him. He reels off a string of books. “Well,” he begins, “the foundation book would be the Bible. Right after that, Atlas Shrugged,” by Ayn Rand. (It would be enjoyable to hear Rand’s response! On being introduced to Bill Buckley, she said, “Young man, you are much too intelligent to believe in God.”) Johnson then names Free to Choose (the Friedmans), The Road to Serfdom (Hayek), and The Law (Bastiat). He sees Atlas Shrugged being played out today, particularly in Massachusetts, with its health-care system, a state precursor to Obamacare: The insurance companies are being manipulated and battered.

Johnson is a rookie candidate, and he will likely make some errors along the way. Feingold is a tough, savvy, smart cookie. He will likely make few errors, unforced. But the public is in an anti-incumbent — specifically, an anti-Democratic — mood. Wisconsin political pros say they have seldom seen such an atmosphere. Johnson is the “change candidate,” and Feingold, who has so cherished his “maverick” image — partly justified — is looking awfully status quo. What everyone says is that Feingold and Johnson are opposites — Feingold says it, Johnson says it, their supporters say it. Feingold is a left-wing political lifer (he and his supporters would not put it quite that way); Johnson is a Rand-fired businessman. Feingold thinks that national health care is a blessing, long overdue; Johnson has entered politics for its very repeal. As Obey is going home, Johnson wants to go to Washington to undo Obey’s work.

Brian Schimming, a Republican politico in Wisconsin who has worked with hundreds of candidates, says he finds Johnson completely refreshing. “Ron is not inherently political. And he believes everything he says.” Schimming gives the impression that this sincerity is almost freakish in politics. Johnson is campaigning energetically, running what he calls a “dash” — he started only in May, remember. “We need to get this done,” he says. “Our country is in peril. That’s the bottom line. This is not my life’s ambition, by any means” — to run for office, to serve in the Senate. “This is just a concerned American who’s stepping up to the plate. I would hope that more people like me do this.”

Russ Feingold once said something endearing — at least endearing to some of us. Talking to The Progressive, he said, “I love to golf. I hate to admit that in The Progressive magazine, but I’m a bit obsessed with golf. It’s really pretty bad. I’ve been seen all over town golfing, so I can’t hide it very well.” The interviewer asked, “Do you see a life after politics?” Feingold said yes. For one thing, there are “so many golf courses to play.” Republicans are hoping he’ll have all the time in the world for this activity. He could even join President Obama on the course. They could rejoice together over national health care, and plot to fight off its repeal.

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