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The Prodigal Son Returns

With Soft Money Banned, Feingold Resumes Dialing for Dollars at the DSCC

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), campaign finance reform crusader and soft-money hater, has never been a big party fundraiser, much to his colleagues’ chagrin.

After being missing in action during past elections he has returned to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee offices to dial for dollars — hard dollars, of course, now that the bill he and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) wrote to ban soft money has become law — and assist party leaders in their quest to win back the Senate.

“They were happy to have me back,” Feingold said. “I’m glad that people say I’ve helped.”

He demurred, however, when asked if he is now one of DSCC Chairman Jon Corzine’s (N.J.) most eager beavers.

“I’m happy to go over and help spend a couple of hours now,” Feingold said, adding that previously he felt “disconnected” from the fundraising process because of the campaign committee’s focus on soft money.

The Senator denied that pressure from Democratic leaders to prove that the party can succeed under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act compelled him to return to the task of fundraising.

“They never singled me out,” he said. “I was just asked in Caucus [meetings] to help like everyone else.”

Corzine praised Feingold — who lives next door to the DSCC office — for pitching in.

“I am grateful for the help and dedication of Senator Feingold and my other colleagues who raise funds for the DSCC,” Corzine said. “Not only is Senator Feingold in a strong position to start off 2004 with his own fundraising, but he is clearly committed to helping his colleagues take back the Senate in 2004.”

The DSCC won’t release specifics about how much money Feingold has raised for the party so far. But a committee spokeswoman, Cara Morris, did say: “He’s done exactly what’s expected of him. Everyone’s happy to have him over here.”

That was not always the case, according to party insiders, who explained that while party leaders wanted Feingold’s help, he rarely offered any.

Feingold readily admits that in years past he did not assist the committee because he eschewed soft money.

“I had told the DSCC that I would raise hard money but not soft money, and I refused to raise money beyond the [hard-money] limits,” he said. “I wouldn’t in my own campaign and wouldn’t now.”

There’s more to party building than just fundraising, however, and one knowledgeable source said Feingold’s assistance could have been used elsewhere.

As a high-profile Senator, he could have helped out with recruitment, for example, if he was disgusted with the fundraising aspect. But he chose not to help in any manner, the source said.

George Aldrich, Feingold’s campaign manager, denied that, saying the Senator “has been involved in many activities other than raising soft money.”

Likewise, none of his current efforts is about mending fences, Aldrich said.

“Senator Feingold has always considered himself part of the team.”

Six years ago, when his re-election campaign was bitter and went down to the wire, Feingold hardly lifted a finger for the committee, according to its chairman at the time.

“No, it was not a smooth relationship,” said former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), who chaired the DSCC for the 1996 and 1998 cycles.

While stressing that he and Feingold always got along well personally, Kerrey said Feingold’s vehement opposition to soft money made it impossible for him to work with the committee. At that time, the DSCC was turning itself into a big soft-money engine: Kerrey raised $18.4 million in soft money that cycle, sowing the seeds for a massive expansion — and reliance — on the now-outlawed contributions. In the 2000 cycle, the committee raised $50.3 million and took in almost $86 million in soft money for the 2002 cycle, according to Common Cause.

“He disagreed with what the committee was doing,” Kerrey said of Feingold in 1998.

Now, however, Kerrey isn’t the least bit surprised to hear of Feingold’s spirited efforts to raise money for the committee, given that the law in his name forbids the DSCC from doing the one thing that was the source of friction between the Senator and the committee.

“It’s nice to be part of the team again,” Feingold said, sounding like the prodigal son finally returned home.

Feingold said he feels more comfortable taking his turn at the phones dialing for dollars because “I’m not asking for such outrageous sums.”

If anyone at the DSCC harbors ill will against Feingold for his past reticence, they’re not saying so now.

“He’s doing a really good job with his own fundraising, and even though he’s in a contested race, he’s really helping his incumbent colleagues to take back the majority,” Morris said.

As of Sept. 30, Feingold had almost $2.4 million on hand.

The same data shows that his campaign has doled out a few hundred dollars directly to other candidates, but a Democratic insider said to watch the year-end figures for even more generous giving on his part.

For now it looks as if Feingold is in a better position to worry about candidates other than himself.

While Republicans maintain that he is still a top target, party elders were unable to persuade a top-tier candidate, such as former Governor and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, to enter the race against him. Three Republicans, two millionaire businessmen and a state Senator, are vying to take him on but with a late primary — Wisconsin’s isn’t until September — the national party cannot coalesce and push one yet.

Additionally, Feingold may be one of the biggest benefactors of his own law banning soft money, further making him more difficult to topple this time.

In 1998 the Republican National Committee poured millions of soft dollars into challenger Rep. Mark Neumann’s (R) campaign, giving Feingold the race of his life.

Feingold refused soft money and upset many in his own party by forcing the DSCC to withdraw a $450,000 ad buy from the airwaves despite the fact that it was being purchased with hard dollars.

The Republicans’ efforts were paying off and a late-October poll showed Neumann ahead, prompting the Democrats to move to shore up his seat, but Feingold would not budge (some of the ads did continue to run after his cease-and-desist order, however). He ultimately squeaked out a 51 percent to 48 percent win.

Feingold does not regret his decision to keep the party at bay, and his campaign has “a positive relationship with the DSCC,” according to Aldrich.

This time, Feingold said he looks forward to a nicer, cleaner campaign.

“I won’t have to take the sort of outrageous hit I did the last time when Republicans poured $3 million in soft money into the campaign,” he said. “I’ll be able to run a campaign more like I wanted to run in ’98.”

While Feingold does not mourn the loss of soft money, some in his party, at least initially, warned that Democrats would not be able to compete in an all-hard-money world.

Feingold says that while a few Democrats “in their heart of hearts wanted to go back” to the old system before the Supreme Court decision last month upholding a majority of BCRA, most are fine with it now.

“If anyone is grumbling, they’re not grumbling to me,” he said.

Feingold said he does not worry about the massive funding gap the DSCC faces when compared to the National Republican Senatorial Committee — currently the DSCC has $730,770 compared to the NRSC’s $7.5 million.

“The gap will get smaller [but] you don’t close the gap,” he said. “Democrats are supposed to have less money. We represent the people; they [Republicans] represent special interests.”

Democrats need to copy presidential hopeful and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) and focus on energizing supporters and small contributors through direct-mail solicitations and the Internet, Feingold said.

“Republicans are in trouble if Democrats focus on energizing voters,” Feingold said. But if Democrats go back to the old ways and make it about money, “we’re going to get clobbered,” he predicted.

Despite that sentiment, Feingold knows Democrats still need some money and unlike the years before, his colleagues can find him calling donors at the DSCC.

Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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