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Wisconsin’s Feingold Fights for Political Life

For the past 18 years, Wisconsin, where Jews constitute 0.5% of the population, has sent two Jews to fill its Senate seats. But as Election Day nears, one of those two is now fighting for his political life.

Over the course of three terms, Democrat Russ Feingold has earned a reputation as one of the Senate’s most independent members — a kind of Democratic counterpart to Arizona Republican John McCain, with whom he has partnered at times. He’s known as a liberal who refuses to toe his party’s line. Now, he is facing an uphill battle against Republican challenger Ron Johnson.

Despite polls showing him consistently behind, Feingold remains convinced that he will win. But if he does not, it will not just mark the end of Feingold’s political career. It will mark the disappearance in Congress of a recognizable political type: the independent Jewish liberal. It’s a profile that Feingold shared with Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, who died in a plane crash in 2002.

“Feingold’s brand was being a maverick,” political scientist Ken Goldstein said from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. But today, “this brand is not enough. If you’re an incumbent and you have the letter D in front of your name, and you voted in favor of health care reform, you’re in trouble.”

First Lady Michelle Obama joined Feingold at a campaign event October 13 in trying to drum up support in what was once known as a Midwest bastion for Democrats. But so far, polls have shown little change.

A recent McClatchy-Marist poll showed that the state has shifted to the right, with fewer Wisconsinites identifying as liberals or moderates and many more choosing to describe their views as conservative. This could explain Republican Johnson’s 52% to 45% lead over Feingold, according to an October 12 Rasmussen Reports poll. Supporters of the incumbent, however, point to tracking polls that factor in those who are undecided, and they show a dead-heat race.

Feingold’s selling point to Wisconsin voters is his independence. Even after 18 years in Washington, Feingold is difficult to pigeonhole. On the one hand, he has proved his progressive credentials not only by supporting health care reform, but also by being the sole vote in the Senate against the post-9/11 Patriot Act and by leading the battle against capital punishment. On the other hand, he voted against President Obama’s Wall Street reform bill, claiming that it was not sufficiently sweeping, and in 1999 he was the only Democrat to oppose dropping the impeachment process against President Clinton. Feingold is also a strong supporter of gun rights, a stance that has put him at odds with most of his liberal colleagues.

To most, the Wisconsin senator is known for his landmark legislation, which bears his own name and that of Republican John McCain. The McCain-Feingold bill sought to regulate campaign finance, an act described as declaring war against Washington lobbyists.

“I am the most independent member of the Senate, based on every analysis,” Feingold said in an October 18 interview with the Forward. “I simply call it as I see it, which is what Wisconsin people certainly in the past have liked and I think they still do now.”

An October 11 TV debate showed Feingold’s firm grasp of the details of health care reform legislation and tax policy, enabling him to debunk many GOP talking points. But in that same debate, Johnson responded that he doesn’t “think this election is about details.” A New York Times editorial the next day glumly opined that Johnson might be right. “The public’s lack of attention to detail, and Mr. Johnson’s willingness to exploit it, could end the career of Mr. Feingold,” the paper editorialized.

Johnson, whose campaign did not respond to calls and e-mails seeking his comment for this story, is a key member of the Republican surprise class of 2010. Hardly known six months ago, the plastics manufacturer from Oshkosh, Wis., entered the Republican race driven by his opposition to health care reform and easily won the nomination. Johnson has put up more than $4 million of his own fortune to finance his campaign. He focused that campaign on helping local businesses and limiting government involvement in the economy. Johnson drew attention after claiming repeatedly that global warming had nothing to do with human activity. He is pro-life, opposes gay marriage and has called Social Security a “Ponzi scheme.”

These stands have won Johnson the backing of the Wisconsin Tea Party movement. But Feingold has been making the case that if voters who are disappointed with Washington are looking for a candidate to support, he is their man. “On some of the key issues I actually agree with them more than my opponent,” Feingold said, “so I am saying to people, I think I am going to get a share of those voters.”

Wisconsin’s Jewish community is relatively small, with an estimated 30,000 members, mostly concentrated in Milwaukee. It is therefore somewhat of an anomaly that both of the state’s representatives in the Senate are Jewish: Feingold and Herb Kohl, also a Democrat.

“The community is for the most part Democratic and progressive,” said Jerry Benjamin, president of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. Benjamin, an active Democrat, said that if Feingold loses the race, it would be “a very painful loss” for the state.

Not for some Jewish activists. The Republican Jewish Coalition, according to its executive director, Matthew Brooks, “fully and enthusiastically” supports Johnson and has raised money for him. Two Jewish former senators from neighboring Minnesota, Rudy Boschwitz and Norm Coleman, have been helping Johnson.

Feingold grew up in a Jewish family, and his sister was Wisconsin’s first female rabbi. Being Jewish, however, was never part of the senator’s politics. Among other things, while he consistently voted in line with the congressional pro-Israel consensus, he did not take the lead on pro-Israel legislation. “If you ask people to say 10 things about Feingold, being Jewish would not be in the top 10,” Goldstein said. “It’s not part of his public persona.”

Feingold did not argue with this description. “I’m extremely proud of my background and my religion, but I don’t wear it on my sleeve,” he told the Forward. “I don’t think people in Wisconsin are interested in hearing about religious issues. I think what they’re interested in is how to solve the economy.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at [email protected]

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