In the spring, former Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold decided to toss his hat in the ring for a rematch against Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, who beat him in the 2010 elections. Feingold, who was first elected to the Senate in 1992, is a formidable challenger to Johnson–and he has to win if there’s any hope for the Democrats in retaking the upper chamber of Congress. In May, Democrats were still viewing Feingold’s loss in 2010 as a “fluke” (via National Journal):
Without a Feingold victory, the party has very little chance of winning control of the Senate. A Feingold loss would likely indicate a very strong year for Republicans nationally. And in such a case, it’s difficult to imagine how Democrats could knock off enough better-entrenched incumbents in redder states to overcome such a setback in Wisconsin.
Democrats need to win at least a net of five Senate seats next year to guarantee a majority. (The number shrinks to four if they win the presidency.) But even on a map laden with Republican incumbents defending blue-state seats, Democrats have few better opportunities than Wisconsin, where Johnson is widely considered, even by Republican operatives, to be the GOP’s most vulnerable incumbent. (Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk also is in the running.)
Six years later, even with Johnson as the incumbent, GOP strategists think they can still frame the race as one between a political outsider and a career politician. Helping their cause, they say, is the belief that Feingold, a crusader for campaign finance reform, will green-light the help of political committees and super PACs—the kind of outside spending he once made a career out of opposing and eschewed in 2010.
“After decades in politics, Feingold’s ego still can’t grasp that he was soundly defeated by Oshkosh job creator Ron Johnson in 2010,” said Andrea Bozek, spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “Wisconsin families rejected Feingold’s broken promises and his liberal record once and they are going to do it again. Wisconsin voters know a desperate career politician when they see one and that is why they will re-elect their independent leader, Ron Johnson.”
In June, Feingold banked $2 million for his 2016 war chest, and was reportedly trying to solicit advice from Wisconsin Democratic operatives who hadn’t spoken with the former senator throughout his entire career. Yet, it seems to be an effort to learn from his 2010 mistakes … regarding messaging; Russ isn’t backing away from his progressive roots.
That tweak on the messaging front was showcased this weekend, where the chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, Martha Laning, said to supporters that they should call Feingold “Russ” because they don’t want to highlight the fact that he’s been in Washington for over a decade (via Free Beacon):
They want us to say ‘Russ,’” Laning said, “because the last campaign was all about ‘16 years, 16 years, 16 years, he’s there too long,’ and so they want to say ‘he’s just one of us. We want to go back to Russ being Russ.’”
The informal salutation “seems very disrespectful,” she said, but the campaign has insisted on the personal touch as a way of downplaying Feingold’s political career, which spanned nearly three decades.
“The second one is we never want to say ‘go back to the Senate,’ we just want to say ‘electing him to the Senate.’ They want to totally get away from all that,” Laning added.
Yeah, do these people think that Google somehow doesn’t exist? Oh, and Feingold’s team really isn’t happy about the video:
An insider close to Feingold made it clear that the ex-senator’s team is none too pleased with the video or Laning, who was elected to the top Dem post in June.
“This is no time for on-the-job training,” said the source, who asked not to be named because he’s not authorized to speak for the campaign. “I’m pretty certain they don’t want Martha Laning to use the words ‘Russ Feingold’ ever again.”
In a statement, Laning accused the Republicans of using her remarks to attack Feingold personally. She said Feingold has always been “Russ” in her mind.
The newly elected Democratic Party boss did admit one mistake.
“Unfortunately, I mischaracterized what Russ says both publicly and privately, to even his closest Democratic supporters,” Laning said. “This Senate seat is not his or Ron Johnson’s because it belongs to the people of Wisconsin.”
But she is not the first prominent Democrat to make such an error.
In a May email to party members, former Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate encouraged people to attend a fundraising reception “to ensure we have the resources we need to retake Russ Feingold’s U.S. Senate seat.”
Still, even with these trip ups, Johnson and the Republicans will have to seriously hold the line in Wisconsin, which hasn’t gone Republican in a national election since the 1984.