Democrats, who are looking to take back control of the Senate in 2016, have focused on a state that might seem implausible at first glance as a litmus test for their goal: Wisconsin.
But the state that elected archconservative Scott Walker as governor in 2010, re-elected him in 2014 and decisively rejected a grassroots effort to recall him for union busting in 2012, is now stirring liberal hopes, thanks to the return of a longtime progressive to the hustings.
Russ Feingold, Wisconsin’s paradigmatic good government liberal, is seeking a rematch against the tea party candidate who ousted him from his Senate seat six years ago in a surprise upset.
Feingold believes his state is ready to correct course and send him back to the Senate. Moreover, early polls seem to confirm the Jewish candidate’s hopes. An April survey by Marquette University put Feingold 16 percentage points ahead of his rival, Republican incumbent Ron Johnson. It’s a lead that has drawn national attention to the Wisconsin race as one that could possibly help Democrats retake the Senate, where they need to overturn five seats now held by the GOP.
“He’s entering the race as a very strong favorite,” said Howard Schweber, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “It’s remarkable to have a lead that big so early, but he’s always had broad appeal to all voters.”
What gives this race its broader significance, Schweber added, is that “Feingold will be running not only against Johnson, but also against Governor Walker,” to determine Wisconsin’s political face, even as Walker is considering throwing his hat into the Republican presidential primary.
For many observers inside and outside the dairy state, Feingold’s comeback drive is being framed as a battle over the nation’s preferred route for economic recovery — Feingold’s liberal approach, or the fierce free-market, anti-union stance upheld by Walker and Johnson. If Feingold fails to defeat Johnson, who is considered by fellow Republicans to be their most vulnerable incumbent, Democrats will have no chance of taking over the Senate.
For all that, however, one of Feingold’s strongest assets is his image as a liberal who is, at the same time, no knee-jerk partisan. He’s a politician harkening back to an earlier era, when pols from both sides of the aisle looked for partners with whom they could work from the other side.
For many Jews, Feingold’s is a kind of mainstream liberalism that defines their comfort zone. “From the standpoint of the Jewish community, it is still refreshing to have a senator like Feingold who is willing to push for good government liberal values,” said Jonathan Brostoff, a Democratic Jewish Wisconsin State representative. “We used to be known for being that kind of a state.”
Feingold, 62, represented Wisconsin in the Senate for three consecutive terms until his surprise defeat in 2010. He even considered running for president in 2008, though the move did not go very far.
Political analysts blame his 2010 loss mainly on timing. Feingold was up for reelection in an off year, when turnout is traditionally lower. A disillusioned Democratic electorate, still waiting for economic recovery, stayed home, allowing Johnson, the fresh tea party candidate, to ride the wave of conservative Republican success that year. Feingold, whose name had become synonymous with campaign finance reform, also insisted on adhering to his own principle of rejecting support from political action committees and other sources spending independently from his campaign. As a result, while both campaigns raised similar amounts of cash, Johnson had a $2 million advantage in independent expenditure.
Though Jews comprise just 0.5% of the state’s population, Wisconsin was held up for years as an example of American Jewry’s political diversity within the liberal spectrum and of America’s own openness to Jewish political leadership. For nearly two decades, both its senators were Jewish, with each representing a different strain in Democratic politics: Herb Kohl, who retired from the Senate in 2012, was a wealthy establishment Democrat who positioned himself well within the Democratic mainstream; Feingold, a liberal who has described himself as the “poorest” member of the Senate, was known for his sometimes bristly independence from party bigwigs.
Those party bigwigs, in turn, sometimes lashed back. In 2002, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who at that time was New York’s junior senator, famously lambasted Feingold during an inner-party council for “not living in the real world” — a rebuke inspired by his refusal to go along with party leaders intent on finding loopholes to the ban on so-called “soft money” imposed by reform legislation he co-sponsored, known as McCain-Feingold.
Other critics have noted that Feingold’s landmark campaign finance reform merely succeeded in moving large contributions by wealthy donors outside the framework of political parties altogether. Nowadays, via purportedly independent groups, wealthy contributors can back favored candidates with no limits at all. In many cases, they now donate without even making the kind of public disclosures required in the past. The Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling, known as Citizens United, upheld this shift, ushering in an era in which big money in campaigns plays a bigger role today than ever.
Perhaps as a result of this, Feingold has made some political adjustments in planning his comeback. The politician once known for his detachment from the Democratic establishment is now reaching out to party leaders, garnering political support and raising campaign funds. He is also reportedly considering taking outside money — an inevitable concession, given the GOP’s plan to pour millions into his rival’s campaign coffers.
Whatever the impact on his image, he may need the help from super-PACs and other supposedly independent expenditure groups. The current early polls favoring him notwithstanding, Feingold is expected to face a tough battle from Johnson, who is going after what Republicans view as the former senator’s Achilles’ heel — his long career in politics. In an environment in which years spent in Washington are considered a political liability, Feingold must prove to Wisconsinites once again that he is one of them. As a first step, he has moved to increase his local presence after spending much of his time in the past few years in California, where he taught a course at Stanford University.
Feingold is also working to remind voters about the record of independence that distinguished him from other Capitol Hill dwellers. His landmark campaign reform legislation with Arizona Republican Senator John McCain is but one example.
Among other things, Feingold was the lone senator to vote against the post-9/11 USA Patriot Act, the law whose government surveillance provisions are now under fierce attack thanks to revelations brought to the public by former National Security Agency insider Edward Snowden; he voted against Wall Street reform legislation after the 2008 financial crash, claiming that the measures Congress passed did not go far enough, and he was one of 23 senators to cast a vote against the Iraq war.
Feingold also irked some in the progressive camp with his support for gun rights. And in 1999, he was the only Democrat in the Senate to vote for continuing the debate over President Clinton’s impeachment.
Feingold’s personal background includes a family that is well known in Wisconsin’s small Jewish community. Feingold grew up in Janesville, Wisconsin, where the family had to drive 40 miles to Madison to attend religious services. The future senator was also active with the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization.
Still, for all his own prominence, the Feingold family’s main imprint on the Badger State’s Jewish life came from Russ Feingold’s sister, Rabbi Dena Feingold, of Beth Hillel Temple, in Kenosha, the first female rabbi in Wisconsin.
“It was a very committed Reform Jewish home,” said Dena Feingold, who was ordained at the
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion before returning to Wisconsin as a congregational leader. She described Jewish values as playing an important role in her brother’s life.
During his Senate years, Feingold was considered a “safe vote” on issues dear to the mainstream pro-Israel community. His successor, Johnson, has also been a strong supporter of the Jewish state. But what could have been a rare point of agreement between the two rivals is now expected to emerge as a divisive campaign issue. Republicans are intent on portraying Democrats as weak on Israel, and Johnson is expected to press this as a line of attack.
“Russ Feingold—if he ever makes it back to Wisconsin from California—will just continue to support the Clinton/Obama foreign policy doctrine of retreat that has inflamed the Middle East and made the world less safe for Israel and the United States,” said Mark McNulty, communications director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
McNulty described Johnson as a “strong ally of the Jewish community and Israel.” “There’s more anxiety in the community in conversation about Israel,” said Elana Kahn-Oren, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. She noted that the community had discussed with Johnson what it sees as “a grave danger of Israel being a wedge issue.”
For those following Jewish politics by the numbers, a Feingold win could help offset the drop in Jewish senators of recent years. There are currently 10 Jewish members in the Senate (nine Democrats and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is an independent). But two veterans, Michigan’s Carl Levin and California’s Barbara Boxer, will be retiring at the end of this term. A win by Feingold will not bring back the days of two Jewish politicians representing Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate, but it could provide a sign that American Jews are not about to lose their outsized role on Capitol Hill.
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com or on Twitter, @nathanguttman
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman