The system bites back
Russ Feingold staked his career on getting money out of politics. It could cost him his Senate seat
By Romesh Ratnesar
(TIME, Oct. 26) -- If Russ Feingold's life were a movie, it would be The Candidate, the 1972 film in which Robert Redford plays a handsome young lawyer running for the U.S. Senate as a clean-playing liberal unbought by the political establishment. In 1992, as a handsome 39-year-old Harvard Law graduate, Feingold got elected to the Senate from Wisconsin by promising to play clean and refusing to be bought by the political establishment. There's just one twist: at the end of the movie, Redford sells out to win; but in his first term, Feingold has remained the Senate Democrat who never stops calling for reform of the campaign-finance system, even demanding that his own President's fund raising be investigated by an independent counsel. Early this year he pledged to spend just $3.8 million on his re-election--$1 for every Wisconsin voter--and to turn away any Democratic Party soft money, which interest groups and corporations can donate in unlimited amounts. "I'd rather lose my Senate seat than play that game," he likes to say.
And that's just what may happen. Which is why Redford himself, in all his rumpled blue-eyed splendor, showed up in Madison, Wis., last week to stump for the candidate who most closely resembles The Candidate. "I don't do this very often," Redford told fellow party loyalists Wednesday night. "But I'm here because he believes in us." And because Feingold needs him desperately: the incumbent is currently lodged in a dead heat in his race against Republican Congressman Mark Neumann. The reason: Feingold not only limited his campaign spending and refused soft money; he also discouraged ads from advocacy groups attacking Neumann--positions consistent with the campaign-finance-reform bill he sponsored with Arizona's John McCain. Neumann, meanwhile, matched Feingold's pledge to hold down spending, but he happily allowed the G.O.P. to dump soft money into the race and to pulverize Feingold with two months' worth of blistering attack ads. By the time Feingold aired his first response in September, paid for with hard money from his own campaign, the average Wisconsin voter had already seen 20 ads against him. Many are clever, but some are downright false. One blasts Feingold for supporting Clinton's $16 billion stimulus package in 1993, and another for funding Russian space-monkey experiments--programs that Feingold actually opposed.
Feingold has done his best to take advantage of his iconoclastic campaign. He calls it "an experiment in American government," and has taken to pronouncing himself "the big underdog," targeted by a money-loving Republican establishment. "They're dying to take the Feingold off McCain-Feingold," he says. Neumann, a former math teacher and homebuilder, argues that Feingold isn't the goody-goody he claims to be: over Feingold's objections, the League of Conservation Voters and the AFL-CIO have run a few advocacy ads criticizing Neumann. "It would be O.K. if he weren't such a hypocrite about it," says Neumann. "But he wants the Republican Party to go away and to leave the prim and proper Democrats alone." Last week Neumann, stuck in budget talks in Washington, excoriated Feingold for staying on the campaign trail. "Tell him to get off his dead butt and get the job done," he said.
The election may turn on how voters respond to such bile. Feingold says he plans to go "intensely positive" with his own advertising blitz in the next weeks, banking on backlash votes from reform-minded moderates turned off by Neumann's negative ads and the campaign-finance system that supports them. Neumann, elected to Congress in 1994 as a number-crunching budget cutter, has aimed his recent TV spots at Feingold's vote against a ban on partial-birth abortions and at his opposition to a constitutional amendment outlawing flag burning. The idea is to whip social conservatives into a holy frenzy and get them to the polls, with the expectation that Monica-weary Democrats will stay home. "It's going to be won or lost on turnout," Neumann says. "And I've got to believe we're in pretty good shape there."
Campaigning last week, Feingold was confident that the impeachment wranglings would mobilize his people too. "The level of partisanship has made a number of Democrats who thought of not voting think they should come out and make a statement," he said. Having sworn off the money that would have funded a sophisticated media campaign, Feingold doesn't have much more to lean on. Last week he made a campaign stop at Robinson Elementary School in Beloit, Wis. Fewer than 20 people attended--some local party officials, a few teachers and a handful of kids whose parents were late to pick them up. Standing in front of the school, Feingold spoke for 10 minutes on his plans for reducing class sizes; a few more listeners trickled in. As Feingold went on, his voice could barely be heard above the steady stream of cars driving right by.
THE MONEY GAP
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Cover Date: October 26, 1998
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