Russ Feingold, the Senate's True Maverick
Over time, Feingold's antiwar and anticorporate record, as well as his defense of civil liberties, have made him a hero to progressive populists. "Russ is not shy about taking on the forces of arrogance and ignorance in my party," says author and activist Jim Hightower. Since the death of Wellstone, says Hightower, "Feingold's the one Democrat I don't have to apologize for." Unfortunately, Feingold's independence isn't inspiring the enthusiasm it once did among Wisconsin swing voters. He's running well with Democrats, but polls have him trailing among unaffiliated voters. And Republicans give him no more credit than they do party-line Democrats. "Politics are more partisan now, more cynical," says former Wisconsin Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager. "You used to hear people say, 'I don't agree with him on the issues, but he's his own man' or 'I'm not a Democrat, but I'm proud of him.' Now a lot more people are in their camps; they don't want to think someone on the other side might be honorable."
Lautenschlager's words apply not just in Wisconsin but nationally. Bush's Iraq War, abuses of civil liberties and failed economic policies have resulted in growing division between the two major parties. Rhode Island Democrats and independents, furious with Bush and Senate GOP leaders, refused to vote as they once had for liberal Republican Lincoln Chafee in 2006. Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter stopped believing that Democrats would cross over and vote for him, and Delaware Congressman Mike Castle learned—after his Senate primary defeat at the hands of a Tea Party firebrand—that there are no longer many moderates voting in GOP primaries. The remarkably unified "Party of No" response to Obama's initiatives by Congressional Republicans, combined with the relentless assault by right-wing media on Democrats and compromise-oriented "RINOs" (Republicans in Name Only), appears to have fostered an edgy and unforgiving partisanship even in states where ticket-splitting was once common. This explains the devolution of McCain on issues ranging from immigration to climate change; it also explains why Chuck Grassley, who once served as a reasonably rational "Bob Dole Republican" (working with Democrat Tom Harkin to enact the Americans With Disabilities Act), is now best known for repeating absurd claims about "death panels."
The bitter divisions over the Bush and Obama presidencies have highlighted longer-term shifts in the makeup and dynamics of the Senate. When Feingold arrived in Washington, regional differences and personal styles were still very much on display in what were far more ideologically diverse party caucuses. The Senate's most consistently antiwar member in the early 1990s was a Republican, Oregon's Mark Hatfield, who also happened to be a steady foe of the death penalty, school prayer and discrimination against gays and lesbians. There were more conservative Democrats from the South in those days, but there were also Southern Democratic populists like Fritz Hollings, who backed Jesse Jackson for president in 1988 and often sounded like Ralph Nader when talking about corporate power. New England Republicans weren't the faint hopes represented by the likes of Maine's Susan Collins; they were proud independents like Rhode Island's John Chafee, one of the biggest backers of moves to expand Medicaid coverage for low-income children and pregnant women. When the Senate debated whether to ban flag-burning, there were votes when more Republicans opposed the assault on freedom of expression than Democrats.
Feingold has seen the Senate grow more partisan and dysfunctional since the days when McCain crossed the aisle and asked the young reformer from Wisconsin to help him squeeze soft money out of national politics. The men and women of principle, the outliers who cast unexpected votes and who forged unlikely coalitions, have mostly been replaced by programmed politicians who dare not deviate from party talking points. The late Senator Robert Byrd—Feingold's ally in resisting the steady creep of executive power—worried aloud in his last years about the way the "history and tradition of being the world's greatest deliberative body is being snubbed."
Yet it is not merely an increasingly White House–focused politics—and the media that reinforce it—that has changed the character of the Senate. The most significant change has been in the way senators get elected and re-elected. In 1992, when Feingold first ran, most races cost millions, with only a few costing tens of millions. Candidates rarely relied entirely on home-state donors, but it was still possible to suggest that most politics was local. Now serious Senate contenders—if they are not independently wealthy—count on massive spending by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which collected $162 million and $94 million, respectively, in 2008, and on the myriad special-interest groups that have wildly inflated the cost of getting elected. And those staggering figures do not take into account the enormous spending by supposedly independent groups. The "money power," as Feingold's progressive forebears referred to it, has redefined Senate races and senators. "In most cases, candidates no longer control their own campaigns," says Ed Garvey, who once sought Feingold's seat and over the past quarter-century has been a leading campaign finance reform activist. "Even candidates who get into politics with the best of intentions start thinking they can't get re-elected without money from the party leaders, from the people in Washington, to keep their jobs. Senators get so reliant on the money that they reflect it; they stop thinking for themselves, stop thinking like the people who elected them. They just worry about getting the money."
More than any current senator, Feingold has resisted the march of money, not merely by fighting for campaign finance reform but by trying to get opponents to agree to limit spending and keep special-interest groups from pouring money into Wisconsin. But his opponent, Johnson, secured the GOP nomination with a promise to use his family fortune to mount one of the most expensive TV ad campaigns in Wisconsin history. Johnson's ads not only distort Feingold's record on specific issues but foster the fantasy that the only Democrat to oppose Obama's mild banking reforms is a rubber-stamp for president and party. "Russ Feingold normally and almost always votes on party lines," claims a Johnson TV ad. "He's right in the Reid, Pelosi, Obama camp." The claim is absurd—Feingold crosses party lines more frequently than all but six senators. But the relentless attacks have had an impact; Johnson pulled even with Feingold in summer polls, and the race moved from a "safe Democratic" rating to one of the year's most competitive. That's certain to steer more corporate money into Wisconsin. Karl Rove says he expects to raise $50 million to defeat Democrats, and Democracy 21's Fred Wertheimer says, "Shadow Republican groups formed by longtime party officials and party operatives are raising and spending hundreds of millions of dollars in this election."
So it is that Russ Feingold finds himself in the fight of his life. He has built a campaign fund of almost $14 million the hard way: with an average contribution of $53. In the past, that would have been more than sufficient to keep the poorest Democrat in the Senate competitive. But not this year, in the aftermath of Citizens United, with corporate money flowing more freely than ever before. Corporate-allied groups like the Club for Growth are already buying heavily to attack Feingold and support Johnson.
Feingold's sure he'll be outspent. But he's also sure he'll win. A political junkie whose father was active in Wisconsin's independent Progressive Party of the 1930s and '40s before becoming a Democratic stalwart in the factory town of Janesville, Feingold is betting it's still possible to counter organized money with organized people. Borrowing a page from Wellstone's remarkable re-election races of 1996 and 2002, Feingold is determined to "win this campaign at the grassroots." To that end, he has opened sixteen field offices, from Ashland on the shores of Lake Superior to Kenosha on the Illinois border. Twenty-seven regional steering committees have taken his campaign into the most rural counties. By early September, canvassers had knocked on more than 105,000 doors and made more than 107,000 phone calls to targeted voters. Feingold is doing much of the asking himself, keeping to a relentless schedule that sends him to the state's most Republican counties to compare notes on the Constitution with conservatives, who don't see many Democrats these days.
The tech-savvy Feingold campaign has 25,000 Facebook friends and 11,000 Twitter followers. Supporters even download "Feintunes"—the senator's picks of songs by Wisconsin artists like Bon Iver and the BoDeans. Yet while he embraces the bells and whistles of modern campaigning, Feingold is betting more on message than mechanics. "I still think people understand," he says, that they need senators willing to stand up to "the power and greed and corruption of Wall Street...the power and greed and corruption of the pharmaceutical companies...the power and greed and corruption of the health insurance companies." Feingold is counting on that understanding to see him through a year when more cautious Democrats may not make it. He says that like the progressives of old, he wants to beat the "money power" in this race so he can go back and fight it in the Senate. "I want you to know that I am committed to this cause because I think it goes to the very core of our democracy," the senator declared on that Friday night when he rallied the faithful.
"You do it, Russ!" came a shout from the crowd.
If Feingold does it, if he wins this race in this year, it will not be as just another Democratic senator. It will not be as a maverick, nor even as an idealist. It will be as a signal that maybe, just maybe, people power can still beat the money power. That senators aren't just extensions of parties and presidents, and that politics can be about something more than Democratic toothpaste versus Republican toothpaste.