Madison Awaits Feingold's Efforts to Awaken Base

Madison Awaits Feingold's Efforts to Awaken Base

By Erin McPike and Scott Conroy - October 4, 2010

MADISON, Wis. -- On a sunny and mild Sunday this weekend, there was no political paraphernalia to be seen and no campaign volunteers to be found along State Street, the main drag of this liberal-leaning college town.

Progressive young residents milling around the area expressed concerns that the energy they saw in 2008 was lacking this year, and Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold has not done enough to get their like-minded peers engaged in his race against self-funding Republican Ron Johnson.

"Russ Feingold is one of our biggest progressive heroes in the Senate, and people know his record and know that he's a straight shooter," said Kaja Rebane, a 32-year-old environmental studies graduate student at the University of Wisconsin who volunteered for President Obama's 2008 campaign. "But a lot of people still don't realize that he's in a lot of trouble because they haven't been paying attention."

Further down State Street at the 40th annual Great Midwest Marijuana Harvest Festival, Jacob Weigandt echoed that sentiment.

"There is less enthusiasm," Weigandt said. "All my friends who are voting are concerned."

Weigandt volunteered to help with logistics for Obama's speech on campus Tuesday, but he never made it in to see it. His friends were not electrified by the speech, but they said it accomplished what it needed to - sparking motivation.

"It was one of his common speeches," Weigandt's friend, Ellen Jordan, said of the president's remarks. "It was well done, but it was something you'd expect to hear him say."

Jordan, an affable blonde in jeans and a bright tie-dyed t-shirt who was sporting a sticker supporting the legalization of medical marijuana, added, "I still think it helped. It gave everyone a boost."

Up the street, Jenny Grado, 24, sipped coffee at the Espresso Royale Caffe with her friend Chelsea Mannebach, 23. Both women voted for Obama in 2008 and attended the president's rally last week.

"I really liked his speech, actually," said Grado, a Wisconsin graduate who works in information technology for the university. "I know a lot of people really didn't."

Grado and Mannebach explained that most of their friends left this week's speech complaining that it was rife with talking points and that Obama hasn't accomplished what he said he would, but the duo said the speech did the job.

They conceded that fewer people will vote in the midterms, but Mannebach thought the fixation on voter apathy in Madison has been overblown.

"A lot of people are still going to vote," she said.

Nevertheless, neither Grado nor Mannebach said they had been contacted yet by Feingold's campaign.

"Someone came to my door and gave me an Obama sticker," Grado remembered.

Feingold spokesman John Kraus dismissed the lack of visibility on State Street on Sunday afternoon, explaining that it was anathema in the Badger State to campaign during Green Bay Packers games. Feingold was in Green Bay on Sunday, instead, for a tailgating rally with steelworkers.

Kraus said the Feingold campaign's Madison efforts for the day included volunteer recruitment calls and "Get Out The Vote" preparation.

He added that 18 canvassers knocked on 481 doors in Madison, Fitchburg, Stoughton and Cottage Grove; 10 people made 553 persuasion calls; and staffers handed out about 50 yard signs.

"Early voting starts this week, and Russ is doing a kick-off in Racine [today] and then events on campus in Appleton, Oshkosh and Madison this week," Kraus said. He added that polling shows Feingold running strong in Madison with young voters and that public polling under represents the demographic.

"Russ will be spending a lot of time campaigning on campuses the next month," Kraus said. "It's a huge base of support for us."

As he chatted with three friends at an outdoor table on State Street, Alex Choudoir, 20, described himself as "very liberal" and said that he planned to vote in this election, but he had not followed the Senate race closely.

"I think a lot of the people I talk to would say that politics is important, but it really boils down to what we need to worry about right now, which is to make sure we can eat, put a roof over our heads, buy insurance, things like that," he said.

Back down State Street, the autumn air turned suspiciously aromatic as a reggae band played to a young crowd of medical marijuana and legalization advocates at the Harvest Festival.

Gary Storck, a writer and medical marijuana activist noted that Feingold has never been a supporter of drug law reform and has taken centrist positions on other issues.

"I don't see him as a big liberal," Storck said. "I see him as more of a moderate, and I'm puzzled by why he's in trouble."

Tom Holcomb, a claims analyst with an insurance group, moved to Madison from New Orleans last year for his job and donned a New Orleans Saints hat while monitoring several NFL games at State Street Brats.

"Yeah, I am worried about the race," Holcomb, a Democrat, said of Feingold's re-election chances. "I don't like the polls."

Holcomb said he had been excited to move to Madison because he knew it was "a very educated area," but he's been disappointed by all of the "right-wing stuff" he's seen around the state recently.

Asked why he thinks Feingold is trailing Johnson, Holcomb said, "I think because people have a short memory" regarding what he saw as the Bush administration's failures.

Though the apparent lack of political fervor in Madison has to be of concern for Feingold as he prepares for his first debate on Friday against Johnson-a businessman and political newcomer-signs of apathy appeared to be at least somewhat bipartisan.

As Republican Jeff Drake, 30, watched the Green Bay Packers take on the Detroit Lions inside State Street Brats, he said that he planned to vote for Johnson but remained uninspired.

"It doesn't matter who you vote for," Drake said. "It's not going to affect your life. I do it because it makes me feel good about myself - it's like going to church."

Erin McPike and Scott Conroy are national political reporters for RealClearPolitics. Erin can be reached at Scott can be reached at

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