Will Russ Feingold Survive?

Will Russ Feingold Survive?

By Patrick McIlheran - April 5, 2010

Russ Feingold, seeking a fourth U.S. Senate term out of Wisconsin, is by now a habit. His state wears him almost unconsciously, the way a rattling old Tercel in front of me at a traffic light still bore its "Feingold in '04" bumper sticker.

Next to the Feingold sticker was one promoting a food co-op, then another reading, "War is not the answer."

That's why Sen. Fixture just may now be in trouble: This year, war isn't even the question.

Instead, the question is whether Washington's grown too expensive and arrogant. Feingold hasn't been compelling at answering this.

Much of the liberal Democrat's appeal to Wisconsin voters in past elections has been his whole party-of-one maverick bit. Speaking truth to power made him an icon to liberals and hasn't necessarily hurt him among the damn-them-all sorts who profess no party. But now he's the guy in the suit at the front of the room to whom the little people are speaking in icy tones.

Feingold, who makes a point of holding public "listening sessions" in every one of Wisconsin's 72 counties annually, has long and loudly been a backer of a single-payer nationalization of health care. He voted for Obamacare while saying it wasn't ambitious enough.

Feingold then faced a series of listening sessions filled with voters telling him Obamacare was overly ambitious by about three or four zeroes. His response has been to demur, deflect and tell constituents they'd like the plan if they knew better. He dismissed several particularly hostile sessions in suburban Milwaukee as being par for Republican territory, but Feingold also got harsh receptions in Green Bay's Brown County, where Obama won 54% of the vote, and rural western Jackson County (Obama: 60%). "Why could you vote against the will of the people?" demanded a constituent in solidly Democratic Kenosha this week, and Feingold was left saying that no proposition ever wins 100% support.

Winning at least a plurality helps, however.

So the senator may be in trouble. How much trouble depends on whether Tommy Thompson gets in the race. The Republican, elected governor four times, has been in Washington since he left to serve as the Bush administration's Health and Human Services secretary. He almost ran for governor in 2006. He did run, badly, for president in 2008. He's now coyly letting surrogates drop hints that he might possibly run and weighing in personally on the occasional controversy.

And in March, he beat Feingold in the Rasmussen poll, 47% to 45%.

Here's the thing: Thompson isn't the only guy running. Unlike two years ago, when the Republicans could scrape up no one but a fringe candidate to run against the senatorial non-entity Herb Kohl, there are already two Republicans running against Feingold.

One, Dave Westlake, is a small businessman who forswore fundraising, is previously unknown and whose strategy is to show up Tea Parties. The other, Terrence Wall, gained some fame around Madison as a property developer who has 2.3 million square feet of commercial real estate with his name on it. He also rallied conservative and business opposition to the liberal machine in Madison's nominally non-partisan municipal politics. Wall has money and youth and is running against Obamacare, cap-and-trade and Feingold. "Government should get back to the fundamentals," he said. "Individuals should run their own lives."

That Rasmussen poll put him at 40% against Feingold's 49%.

Which isn't bad for a man unknown in much of the state. Wall says his campaign's own polling in late February put him ahead of Feingold, 48% to 39%, in the Milwaukee area, and within three points in Green Bay. He says he's not bothered that Thompson, the most famous politician in state history, might jump into the Republican race. If anything, he argues, the possibility has distracted the Feingold war machine.

Wall hasn't caught fire among conservatives, at least not yet. In the past, he's donated to Democrats -- survival strategy for a Madison developer, he says -- and he's never run a political campaign of any size. Still, he figures, the time is right to take out a senator consistently identified with expansionist government.

"We're headed towards a cliff," he said. Fiscal probity is back on voters' agenda, the health of business a chief worry, yet "Russ Feingold has never made a payroll."

"He's clueless on business. He's an attorney."

Yet Feingold is the man who, despite being on the left of the Senate, has been elected three times by an undecided state, twice beating men boasting of business experience. Feingold also curries at least the the neutrality of voters for whom the 2nd Amendment is a top issue, earning good ratings from the NRA -- an important metric in a state bristling with deer rifles. Between calming the passions of potential enemies and serving as the avatar of the left as it warred against the war on terror, Feingold found a winning strategy.

But the war is over -- except for the one that an even bigger icon of the left, Barack Obama, is fighting in Afghanistan. Unlike 2004, there is no George W. Bush stashing hapless innocents at Guantanamo to talk about. Unlike 1998, there is no Republican Congress tormenting the president to which Feingold can be sent as leaven.

Now, talking of either war or Congress leaves progressives with a felty feeling in the mouth. From the high of November 2008, it's been year-long hangover for the left. Feingold's passionate voters won't vote against him -- but the question is whether they'll get out of bed to vote for him, at least in numbers great enough to overcome energized Republicans and disenchanted independents.

Wall already figures he knows the answer. "I'll win," he says, more matter-of-factly than you'd think for a political newcomer nine points back in the early polls. "Feingold's done."

He just may be.

Patrick McIlheran is a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial columnist who blogs at E-mail

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