Feingold’s Ship is Sailing


The hulls of Pat Roberts, Eric Cantor, Mary Landrieu – and two years ago, Tommy Thompson – all splintered on the rocks after accusations that they weren’t in touch with their home states, after it was brought to light that they didn’t live in their districts, and after an image was painted of them of someone who had come unmoored from the people who originally elected them.

While Roberts – an long-time incumbent – pulled it off thanks to big-money national help, these cases should be instructive for former Senator Russ Feingold, who is rumored to be considering a rematch with Senator Ron Johnson, who handily vanquished him in the Republican wave of 2010.

The message voters are sending in these elections cycles is clear: representatives in government need to stay connected to their people. Feingold at one time nurtured a reputation as one of the most responsive senators, holding listening sessions in each of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. But at the time of the election, that will have been more than six years ago, more than enough time for the average voter to have forgotten even his name, let alone his dusty reputation as a man of the people.

Feingold is no fool. I’m sure he saw what happened to another once-loved politician who spent too many years in Washington, Tommy Thompson. Thompson departed Wisconsin in 2001 to join President Bush’s administration; he maintained ties to the state, but his profile was sufficiently low that when he returned to state politics in 2012 he was unable to cash in on the remnants of his former glory.

Thompson was portrayed by enemies with access to deep pockets as someone who once had the interests of Wisconsin in mind, but who had sold out to interests in Washington and who “isn’t for you anymore.” The campaign was a success, in certain ways presaging those powerful insurgent messages that did so much damage to incumbents on both sides of the aisle in 2014.

I’m not in the business of tracking down the whereabouts of former senators or looking up real estate records in the DC suburban area, but I know from simple observation that Feingold has kept an exceptionally low profile around Wisconsin. He’s currently the special envoy to the Great Lakes region of Africa, and from his PAC’s website it’s ascertainable that he’s now formerly a visiting professor at various colleges around the country, including Stanford, Marquette, and Lawrence Universities.

Were he to run, Feingold would face an onslaught that combined with his years out of the spotlight could be a serious impediment to his return to politics.

Senator Johnson would bury him under a mountain of spending, both from his own deep personal wealth, the in-state donors who helped bankroll three Scott Walker victories, and national outfits with a strong interest in keeping the conservative senator, business owner, and powerful committee chairman in office. And given the right advice, the message would center around the same line of attack that state Rep. Tammy Baldwin used to sink the Wisconsin phenomenon, Tommy Thompson: that Feingold simply doesn’t have Wisconsin’s interests in mind anymore.

A well-paid professor at Ivy League Colleges all around the nation, a political action committee power broker, and an oftentimes resident of Washington, DC, Feingold simply isn’t the everyman state senator who eschewed big political money and fought for reform on behalf of the average people back home…anymore. Today, Feingold has gallivanted around the country gladhanding with Ivory Tower intellectuals, raking in untold millions from anonymous billionaire liberal donors, and living in Washington penthouses as he tours the globe, apparently caring more about the concerns of sub-Saharan Africa than the needs of folks back home. Tens of millions would pour into the race supporting this kind of message.

Feingold likely doesn’t have an interest in losing an attempted comeback and, with it, his hard-won reputation and place in Wikipedia’s list of Progressive Heroes From Wisconsin.

Thus my thesis: Feingold is not planning on running for Senate.

He’s smart enough to know the facts I just laid out, and while he was far to the left of the average Wisconsinite, he was savvy enough as senator to barnstorm the state annually. Likewise, he’s savvy enough to know his disconnect from Wisconsin would be a huge problem for him. He’s savvy enough to know the Republican Party of Wisconsin is a much, much more effective organization than the one he remembers, having successfully navigated three gubernatorial elections. He’s savvy enough to know voters’ memories are, on the margin, brief. If he were planning on running for Senate, he’d likely be back in-state, raising his profile and re-establishing his hometown bona fides.

But he’s not.

His reputation as some sort of anti-career politician – perpetually broke, stubbornly independent, and constantly in touch with the folks back home – will have already faded into sepia tones by 2016. Feingold is doing nothing noticeable to combat that, and with the 2016 election now less than two years out, the ship is already sailing on his opportunity to make a comeback.

He likely enjoys his current role as a world-changing do-gooder envoy – that’s to be respected. His future is also wide open; if needed, he could return to being a professor and he could return to his PAC, Progressives United, from which he could profit handsomely in the new era created by the Citizens United decision which rightly smashes limits on the amount of money groups like Feingold’s can collect. Also, as the resignation of Sen. Jim DeMint suggested, there’s a lot more money and influence to be had by running a powerful political group than in being a lonesome elected official. Why not run a group that helps elect scores of those voices rather than being just one voice within a choir of hundreds?

Russ Feingold has had a fruitful political career and now has the chance to focus his talents and influence on electing progressives while making a lot of scratch. It’s simply difficult to believe Feingold would shove aside the cart full of gold and jump back into the cesspool.

Only time will tell if Feingold calculates that the wind of a presidential election will fill his sails enough to carry him to a high-stakes victory. If he desires a re-match, his very legacy will hang in the balance. If I’m proven correct and he opts out of a risky try at elected office, that leaves one Wisconsin Democrat who can feasibly challenge Johnson: Ron Kind, of La Crosse, who may well be tempted to climb out of the mob in the people’s house into the ivory tower of the Senate.

About the writer: Chris Rochester has worked in communications and finance for a state Senate and congressional campaign, consulted on numerous Assembly and local races, and has held leadership roles in his local Republican Party. He's communications director for the MacIver Institute. Commentary here is strictly his own.
  • Katie

    You make a lot of great points, Chris! I agree – definitely don’t think it’s in the cards for Russ to challenge Ron Johnson for his seat again. I could definitely see a Ron Kind vs. Ron Johnson challenge and looks as though Jen Shilling is moving up the ranks in the State Senate pretty quickly– likely contender for CD-3’s congressional seat when Kind runs?