Feingold, Strickland Fight History in Comeback Bids

Feingold, Strickland Fight History in Comeback Bids
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In two of next year’s critical Senate races, Democrats have turned not to young upstarts, but to politicians with decades of experience – former Sen. Russ Feingold in Wisconsin and former Gov. Ted Strickland in Ohio, both of whom lost re-election bids in 2010. But such comebacks are no easy feat, and both candidates will face roadblocks both historical and current in flipping the script on their losses five years ago.

On the plus side, Democrats argue that the now-dissipated Tea Party was mostly behind both candidates’ losses, and that the traditional difficulties of a statewide comeback don’t apply this time because the electorate is likely to be much more favorable in 2016. On the other hand, Republicans assert that voters squarely rejected both men from returning to office once before and that plenty of reasons exist for the same outcome next year.

If either Strickland or Feingold wins his respective election next year, it will be a historical first. Strickland, who is 74 years old, would be the oldest freshman senator ever elected, and the first former governor to lose re-election and then win a Senate bid since the early 1970s. Feingold (pictured) would be the first senator from Wisconsin to ever lose his seat and later win it back, according to an analysis from University of Minnesota professor Eric Ostermeier. He’d also be just the third senator to lose re-election but later win back a seat in the upper chamber since the 1950s and the first since the 1988. 

Democrats have rallied around both politicians, as their comeback bids have serious national implications. Republicans currently have a 54-46 advantage in the Senate, but are defending a number of tough seats in swing states, and Democrats have their sights squarely set on retaking the majority. Whichever party prevails in either Ohio or Wisconsin will put a serious dent in their opponents’ chances – with even more significant impact if the same party wins both.

How the Races Stack Up

At this early stage in the campaigns, both Strickland and Feingold are showing themselves to be strong opponents, possibly negating the difficulties of comebacks. In April, a poll from Marquette University found Feingold holding a 16-point lead over incumbent Ron Johnson, 54 percent-38 percent. Those numbers have since tightened, with a poll last week showing the challenger ahead by just five percentage points, 47-42.

Democrats insist the high support for Feingold this early shows voters are open to seeing him return to the Senate, and that there is little lingering frustration from the 2010 race.

“In general, I don’t like to be a slave to current polls, but this is one of the times that what this electorate keeps telling us, ‘We’re for Feingold not Johnson,’ is pretty damn instructive,” said Paul Maslin, a Democratic strategist who worked for Feingold in 2010. “In the very least, it tells us the race is not going to be determined by ‘we already did this.’”

The counterpoint to that argument, however, is the 11-point dip in Feingold’s lead from spring. Sure, Republicans say, voters remember him from his long tenure in office, and his high name ID led to high poll numbers, but as soon as his campaign took off, those numbers dropped.

“Everybody wants the backup quarterback in,” said Scott Klug, a former Republican congressman from Wisconsin. “The person you’ve always wanted until he throws the first pass and you realize why he was always the backup quarterback.”

In Ohio, the race sets up much the same way. Strickland led current Sen. Rob Portman, 48 percent-39 percent, in April, according to a Quinnipiac poll. That lead dipped to 46-40 in June and 44-41 in August.

The Democrat’s high poll numbers early in the race are also attributed to his high name ID after serving four years as the governor, while Portman struggled with name ID, with 37 percent in the August poll saying they hadn’t heard enough about him to have an opinion.

Republicans brush off that ID factor, insisting that governors are generally more recognizable than senators, and that the numbers will even out as the race moves forward. As far as the dip in Strickland’s lead, Democrats say they aren’t concerned. According to estimates from the Ohio Democratic Party, as much as $9.4 million has been spent in advertisements attacking Strickland or supporting Portman, though Republicans strongly dispute those numbers, saying the ad spending has been closer to $2 million. Democrats consider Strickland’s four-point drop in the polls facing such heavy spending as a victory.” ** 

“There’s no better proof of just how strong Ted Strickland’s campaign is than the millions of dollars Senator Portman and his special interest allies are dumping into Ohio trying to tear Ted down,” said Jennifer Donohue, spokeswoman for the Ohio Democratic Party. “But even after up to $9.4 million was spent, Ted is still leading Portman in the latest poll.”

Attacking the Opponent’s Record

While a wealth of experience can be a real asset when taking on an incumbent, it also opens up the candidate to many lines of attack. In the case of someone mounting a comeback six years after losing, they boil down to these: hits on the candidate’s time in office, a reminder of why he was voted out in the last election, and criticism of what he did in the intervening years.

In the first case, the sword can cut both ways: True, previous time in office is one of the most compelling arguments for being elected this time around, but it’s also difficult to separate past job performance from the previous election loss.

Former South Dakota Sen. Larry Pressler served 18 years in the Senate before losing re-election in 1996. Last year – after a much longer gap than either Feingold or Strickland faces – Pressler attempted to return to office as an independent, but garnered only 17 percent of the vote. “Your greatest strength becomes your greatest weakness,” he said in explaining the loss. “… Past accomplishments seem to almost be a past liability.”

That’s what Republicans are planning on.

Though Feingold spent 18 years in the upper chamber, many of the attacks will be based on some of the later votes he cast – for the financial stimulus package and Obamacare, two issues directly linked to the Tea Party wave of 2010.

“Senator Feingold still supports all the things he supported in 2010 that got him fired,” said Brad Todd, a Wisconsin strategist working for Johnson’s campaign. “It’s not that he was voted out, it’s that he hasn’t changed his position on any of the things that got him fired. He got fired because he’s a partisan lockstep vote on debt and Obamacare and he remains a hard-core partisan who, even with those ideas having proven not to work, he still supports them.”

There is a danger in that strategy of linking Feingold to his old positions, however: Those votes were thoroughly dissected in the 2010 race, and the issues simply might not draw the attention and sway that they did last time around. In a statement to RCP, Feingold’s campaign manager, Tom Russell, accused Johnson of being “stuck in the past.”

"Wisconsinites want to elect a candidate who is focused on improving the current economic well-being of families, like Russ Feingold, not an out-of-touch politician like Senator Ron Johnson who is desperate to re-litigate the political battles of 2010,” Russell said. “Russ will win this race because he’s actually listening to what Wisconsinites need in 2016, not stuck in the past like Senator Johnson."

In Ohio, as in Wisconsin, much of the GOP criticism stems directly from Strickland’s failed re-election bid against now-Gov. John Kasich. Republicans are quick to say that Strickland lost the state 350,000 jobs and hurt the economy, which was essentially the same argument that allowed Kasich to sweep him out of office.

Ads have started to run early, most of them backed by outside groups. Americans for Prosperity funded $1.4 million worth of ads attacking Strickland in mid-August. Brian Wright, an Ohio Democratic strategist, said he first saw one of the ads when one of his kids was watching a video on YouTube earlier this summer.

“I was thinking ‘They’re slamming Ted now; he must be doing really great,’” Wright said, later adding. “The fact that Karl Rove is out there and the U.S. Chamber [of Commerce] this far out of the race is trying to pull him down is, I think, very telling.

Donohue, the Ohio Democratic Party spokeswoman, argued that voters have already seen and are very familiar with those messages from 2010, and the fact that Strickland still has a lead in polls, albeit a small one, shows the ads aren’t resonating. Republicans, unsurprisingly, take the opposite view: They see Strickland’s shrinking lead in the polls as a sign the advertisements have been, and will continue to be, successful. 

“This race is about comparing Rob Portman’s record of results for Ohio and Ted Strickland’s awful record of overseeing 350,000 jobs lost from Ohio and running the economy into the ground,” Corry Bliss, Portman’s campaign manager, told RCP.

Another issue that comes with reviving a political career is the lapsed time since leaving office. Ostermeier, the Minnesota political science professor who analyzed political comebacks, told RCP both Feingold and Strickland timed things well in staging their returns now. They passed on comeback chances in previous years – Feingold chose not to challenge Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in his 2011 recall or 2014 re-election; Strickland didn’t challenge Kasich in a rematch last year. Waiting six years, Ostermeier said, clears both candidates from any possible “stench of desperation” to return to the political arena, but isn’t so long that it hurts their name ID or relevance.

Both candidates have been criticized for the work they did between election cycles, however. Strickland led the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a wing of the liberal think tank in Washington. Feingold took up a post in the State Department, but also taught a course at Stanford University, which is where he was prior to returning to Wisconsin to announce his re-election bid earlier this year.

The bigger problem for Feingold – and the one Republicans have most harshly criticized – is his formation of a political action committee. Feingold was well known as a steadfast opponent of loose campaign finance measures in his time in the Senate. In 2002, he co-authored campaign finance reform with Republican Sen. John McCain, and in 2010 he refused to allow outside groups to spend on his behalf in Wisconsin, a decision that many say contributed to his loss.

But when Feingold left office, he set up a PAC. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported earlier this summer that the organization had spent a mere 5 percent of its funding on candidates, and that the vast majority had gone toward raising money for itself and to pay employee salaries. Republicans have seized on this issue, calling Feingold a hypocrite.

Since leaving office, “Feingold has done nothing but show that he’s a professional politician who will violate his principles on the issue most important to him – which means he’ll do the same on issues important to Wisconsin,” Brian Reisinger, a spokesman for Johnson’s campaign, told RCP.

At the time, Feingold told the Journal-Sentinel in a statement that employees of the PAC should be “proud of their work to promote net neutrality, fight corporate influence in politics and support core progressive values.”

Maslin, the Democratic strategist who worked with Feingold in 2010, brushed aside the PAC issue, saying he thought it wouldn’t cause much damage. “If they really want to go into the briar patch about the PAC and who’s raising money from where, I think Feingold will take them to lunch,” he told RCP.

But in the months since the PAC came to light, Republicans have continued their attack, asserting that Feingold’s time out of office will have just as much an impact on his attempt to return as his long career in office.

Has the Political Climate Really Changed?

In 2010, Democrats suffered extreme losses across the board. The GOP flipped six Senate seats and a net of six governorships, along with taking 63 House seats and regaining control of the lower chamber. Feingold and Strickland were among those who were swept out of office in the wave, but their attempted returns six years later appear to be coming in a different political climate.

They will benefit in many ways from running in a presidential year, when Democratic turnout is traditionally much higher than in off years. They will also benefit from the fact that both their losses in 2010 were relatively narrow – Feingold lost by five percentage points, Strickland by 2.7. Higher turnout may not cover those gaps, but could narrow them.

Maslin estimated as much as 40 percent of the vote in 2016 will come from voters who didn’t cast judgment on the two Senate candidates the last time around. (More than 800,000 fewer votes were cast in the 2010 Senate election than in the 2012 Senate election, which was a 38 percent increase during the presidential year.)

“There’s a big, big chunk of this electorate that did not make a judgment about Russ Feingold in 2010 and they lean more Democratic,” Maslin said. “They alone aren’t enough to win, but they are able to make the race different from the get-go.”

Different trends in the state, however, may lessen the presidential year benefits for Feingold. Since Walker won election in 2010, his recall in 2011 and re-election in 2014, the state has become more partisan than it was in the past and there are fewer moderate, independent votes up for grabs. Brandon Scholz, a Wisconsin GOP strategist, said the Republican infrastructure built up in the state through Walker’s three elections could counter some of the typical advantages Democrats enjoy in presidential years.

“This is not where Russ Feingold gets on the ballot and runs on the Feingold name and everybody knows him and loves him,” Scholz said. “This is not ‘Cheers,’ where everybody knows your name. He will need more than that and that’s where the Republican infrastructure is markedly, decidedly better.”

Strickland’s campaign may benefit from his time in Congress before running for governor. He represented a  district in Southeast Ohio for more than a decade – including winning back his seat after losing his first re-election race – and can do particularly well in an area of the state that’s typically difficult for Democrats. Donohue, the Ohio Democratic Party spokeswoman, told RCP Strickland won 17 of 32 Ohio counties in the Appalachian region in his 2010 loss. In 2012, Obama won just four of those while carrying the state and Sen. Sherrod Brown won just 10 in his re-election.

The other factor that could upend either of these races is, of course, the fact that both states’ sitting governors are running for the Republican nomination for president. If Walker or Kasich wins the nomination, the victor’s state will become crucial in the general election – Ohio even more so than it is every presidential election – and the party infrastructure is likely to increase significantly. There is a danger there, however, that the high energy of a presidential campaign could drown out the Senate race, tying the down-ballot results more closely to the presidential outcome.

Regardless of the myriad complications that could push these races one way or the other, there’s an important caveat: It’s 14 months before Election Day. Each source that spoke with RCP cautioned that all analysis must be taken with massive a grain of salt, as any number of factors could significantly tilt both of these elections.

Regardless of whether that happens, though, the importance of these two races won’t change. Democrats likely need both seats to have a realistic chance of retaking the Senate and Republicans will likely need to win at least one of them to maintain their majority. That puts a microscope over the comeback bids of Strickland and Feingold, meaning the election won’t only determine the future of these two seasoned politicians and their incumbent opponents, but of the two parties in the Senate.

But even if they can’t mount successful comebacks and regain office next year, the two men shouldn’t fret too much. Back in the 1960s, Richard Nixon spent two years in the Senate before becoming vice president. After an unsuccessful presidential bid, Nixon lost a much smaller race for California governor in 1962. Six years later, he won the presidency, proving that while comebacks are difficult, they’re not always out of reach.

**This paragraph was updated with new information at 2:48 p.m. Sept. 1.

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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