Russ Feingold Is Back, But Has He Changed?

The Wisconsin Democrat hopes to return to the Senate, and he’s promising to learn from the mistakes that cost him in 2010.

National Journal
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
June 9, 2015, 4 p.m.

MIL­WAU­KEE — For a mo­ment last Fri­day, Russ Fein­gold tried to an­swer his skep­tics rather than rally his base. Tucked away in a 30-minute speech brim­ming with fiery de­nun­ci­ations of the Pat­ri­ot Act and over­priv­ileged CEOs were two sen­tences that sug­ges­ted the former sen­at­or was in­tent on con­front­ing his new cam­paign’s biggest chal­lenge.

“Demo­crats, we are the party of the fu­ture, but only if we listen, and only if we act,” he told sev­er­al thou­sand Wis­con­sin Demo­crats gathered for the party’s an­nu­al state con­ven­tion, loc­ated in a ball­room at a glitzy down­town casino. “We don’t win seats by fight­ing yes­ter­day’s battles.”

Few can­did­ates know bet­ter than Fein­gold about the need to ad­apt and move on from an old fight. Few ex­pec­ted Fein­gold would lose when the 2010 elec­tion cycle began, but he was caught off guard and even­tu­ally ous­ted by a polit­ic­al new­comer who suc­cess­fully con­vinced voters that Fein­gold was part of a lib­er­al Con­gress too eager to ex­pand the size of gov­ern­ment. In the af­ter­math, mem­bers of Fein­gold’s team pub­licly cri­ti­cized the ef­fort, call­ing it stale and out of step with the sen­at­or’s pre­vi­ously suc­cess­ful runs.

Now, Fein­gold is run­ning to re­claim his seat in a re­match with Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Ron John­son, and his team is con­fid­ent that a more fa­vor­able polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment and pres­id­en­tial-year turnout will push the race in his fa­vor. But they’re also vow­ing a fresh ap­proach — both from the sen­at­or and the team around him — to as­sure Demo­crats that the mis­takes of the last cam­paign won’t be re­peated.

It’s an im­port­ant de­vel­op­ment for the Demo­crats in a race the party likely must win to re­take the Sen­ate ma­jor­ity. And it’s one Re­pub­lic­ans are vow­ing to fight. They say they will make the next con­test a re­run of the last race, be­liev­ing a politi­cian who has yet to re­cant his old agenda will have a tough time con­vin­cing voters they made a mis­take when they threw him out of of­fice the first time.

“If Sen­at­or Fein­gold does not ad­mit he was wrong, then that means he thinks the voters were wrong,” said Betsy Ankney, John­son’s cam­paign man­ager. “Telling Wis­con­sin­ites they were wrong is a sure­fire way to lose an elec­tion.”

Fein­gold’s first task might be prov­ing that, un­like in pre­vi­ous years, he’s not an in­su­lar can­did­ate who has as­sembled an in­su­lar team around him. So he’s set out from the get-go this time around to reach a much broad­er cross-sec­tion of his fel­low Demo­crats. It’s an im­press­ive call list, ac­cord­ing to his cam­paign: each of the chairs from Wis­con­sin’s 72 loc­al county com­mit­tees, every mem­ber of the state House and Sen­ate, and every Demo­crat­ic U.S. sen­at­or.

Even long­time Demo­crat­ic strategists in the state who had nev­er spoken with the former sen­at­or be­fore say they’ve re­ceived a call in re­cent months from a can­did­ate sud­denly eager to so­li­cit ad­vice.

“I’ve been sur­prised at the num­ber of con­ver­sa­tions he’s had with people, donors and oth­ers who can help him get voters,” said Patrick Guar­asci, a Demo­crat­ic strategist who has nev­er worked for Fein­gold. “He’s work­ing. You can tell he’s not tak­ing things for gran­ted, which is a great sign.”

It’s not the only change in Fein­gold’s ap­proach. Demo­crats ex­pect that, un­like in 2010, he’ll green-light in­de­pend­ent ex­pendit­ures from the Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee to aid his ef­fort. (Su­per PACs, which were con­ceived in the middle of Fein­gold’s last elec­tion but not yet pop­u­lar among Demo­crats, might also help.) And he’s in­stalled a new team around him to help, in­clud­ing new cam­paign man­ager Tom Rus­sell, a vet­er­an of former Mary­land Gov. Mar­tin O’Mal­ley’s reelec­tion cam­paign. An­oth­er new­comer, na­tion­al Demo­crat­ic poll­ster Fred Yang, will con­duct the cam­paign’s polls.

Not everything has run so smoothly for the Demo­crat. His spring cam­paign an­nounce­ment took many by sur­prise, and it came while he was still teach­ing at Stan­ford Uni­versity in Cali­for­nia. Re­pub­lic­ans have re­lent­lessly high­lighted how much time Fein­gold — who served as a spe­cial State De­part­ment en­voy to the Great Lakes re­gion of Africa un­til resign­ing earli­er this year — has spent out of state since los­ing in 2010.

In their view, Fein­gold’s out­reach ef­fort isn’t a sign of changed can­did­ate as much of a politi­cian who has had to reac­quaint him­self in a state he has lost touch with. “I un­der­stand Fein­gold has name ID, but it’s not like he’s spent the last four years work­ing the state,” said Mark Graul, a Re­pub­lic­an op­er­at­ive in Wis­con­sin.

Wis­con­sin has be­come one of the na­tion’s most po­lar­ized states, one cap­able of let­ting Scott Walk­er win three elec­tions in four years while also hand­ing re­l­at­ively easy vic­tor­ies to Pres­id­ent Obama in both of his cam­paigns. But for all the in­roads Re­pub­lic­ans have made here, Demo­crats plainly think John­son’s 5-point vic­tory five years ago was a fluke — the product of the year’s heavy Re­pub­lic­an bend and the Fein­gold cam­paign’s slow-footed re­ac­tion to John­son’s late ar­rival in the race.

The dif­fer­ences between turnout in a midterm and pres­id­en­tial year alone could hoist Fein­gold to vic­tory, in their telling. And even if things aren’t that simple, at min­im­um, the cam­paign knows it will have plenty of am­muni­tion against John­son now that he’s served four years in the Sen­ate. Early polls sug­gest the Re­pub­lic­an in­cum­bent starts at a de­fi­cit — a mid-April poll from the Mar­quette Uni­versity Law School said Fein­gold had the sup­port of 54 per­cent of voters to John­son’s 38 per­cent.

“Wheth­er John­son likes it or not, voters are go­ing to get a very clear com­par­is­on between the two can­did­ates in this elec­tion,” said Rus­sell, Fein­gold’s cam­paign man­ager. “We feel con­fid­ent they’ll side with Russ.” (Through a spokes­man, Fein­gold de­clined to be in­ter­viewed for this story.)

In the Sen­ate, Fein­gold was known as an icon­o­clast; he was among the earli­est and most vo­cal de­tract­ors of the Ir­aq war and was the up­per cham­ber’s lone vote against the ori­gin­al Pat­ri­ot Act le­gis­la­tion. He was also a lib­er­al’s lib­er­al, evin­cing a left-lean­ing pop­u­lism now pop­ularly as­so­ci­ated with the party’s Eliza­beth War­ren wing.

It was evid­ent last week­end that Fein­gold doesn’t plan on back­ing away from any of his old agenda. His key­note ad­dress to the state party was a 30-minute stem-winder fo­cus­ing mostly on the need to re­cog­nize every­one’s con­tri­bu­tion to so­ci­ety and de­noun­cing Re­pub­lic­ans for look­ing past the value of work­ing Amer­ic­ans. And he wasn’t shy about a dive in­to the policy weeds: His speech even in­cluded a 300-word net-neut­ral­ity sec­tion about the im­port­ance of turn­ing broad­band In­ter­net in­to a pub­lic util­ity.

Demo­crats say they aren’t wor­ried that Fein­gold hasn’t ret­ro­fit­ted his ap­proach; in fact, they think pub­lic opin­ion — on is­sues like in­equal­ity and mass sur­veil­lance — has moved closer to Fein­gold’s own views since he last held of­fice.

“We’re liv­ing in the world that Russ Fein­gold pre­dicted we would live in,” said Tim Kaine, the sen­at­or from Vir­gin­ia who spoke at the Wis­con­sin Demo­crat­ic con­ven­tion on Fri­day. (In a sign of how ex­cited the party is about Fein­gold’s re­turn, the out-of-town­er Kaine was asked to speak be­fore the former sen­at­or de­livered the event’s key­note speech.)

But Re­pub­lic­ans think the lack of change in Fein­gold’s views will help them run the same cam­paign that worked against him in 2010 — hit­ting him for votes in fa­vor of the stim­u­lus and Obama­care. And though John­son is the in­cum­bent, Re­pub­lic­ans say they think voters will still see him as the polit­ic­al out­sider when his re­cord is com­pared to Fein­gold’s 32-plus years of pub­lic ser­vice.

“To get reelec­ted, Sen­at­or Fein­gold will have to tell the voters that his par­tis­an votes on debt and spend­ing and Obama­care were a mis­take,” Ankney said. “That’s why he was fired in 2010 — and he won’t be re­hired if he pre­tends those were the right votes to make.”

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