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Will Michels Trigger Millionaires’ Provision in Wisconsin Senate Race?

Despite the presence of a millionaire candidate, Democrats, Republicans and independent observers alike doubt the outcome of the tight Senate race in Wisconsin will boil down to money.

Not that both camps aren’t feverishly raising money anyway.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D) entered general election mode with roughly $3 million left in his war chest, and while Republican businessman Tim Michels started with almost nothing, his aggressive fundraising and personal wealth means he is not expected to be at a disadvantage.

“Our fundraising in Wisconsin is very strong but we have a formidable challenge against Senator Feingold, who has raised, what we believe is a record in Wisconsin, almost $8 million, and so we are aggressively going after dollars,” Michels spokesman Tim Roby said.

The Feingold camp was equally confident that it would have enough money to last through Nov. 2.

“We’re planning on being competitive in this race; we’re not taking anything for granted and we’re going to keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Feingold campaign spokesman John Kraus said.

Michels has made several trips to Washington, D.C., since winning the four-way Sept. 14 GOP primary searching for high-end donors and seeking help from the national party.

Roby said those efforts have paid off and that Michels is probably wrapping up his last trip to Washington today.

Kraus said that if Michels’ fundraising was going as well as his campaign says it is, the candidate would not be wasting his time in Washington.

“He has been spending a lot of time in Washington, D.C., trying to raise money,” Kraus said. “That should tell the people of Wisconsin that he’s having a hard time building support for his campaign here.”

Roby said that is nonsense: “On the surface that’s ludicrous. The primary victory was largely because of Tim’s grassroots support.

“Our fundraising is going well but at the same time there are a number of Republicans in Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., who are anxious to get behind someone who can win,” Roby said, explaining why Michels has taken time off the campaign trail to travel east.

Neither campaign has reported its Sept. 30 Federal Election Commission numbers yet but Michels said Wednesday he has raised at least $500,000 since the primary, and that doesn’t include a $100,000 check he wrote himself in the last reporting period.

The Feingold camp has yet to release any figures on its latest fundraising numbers.

Michels, who owns what he says is the largest construction company in Wisconsin with his two brothers, still has not said how much of his own money he is willing to part with for the general election — he reportedly dumped $1.5 million into his surprise primary victory — but has indicated he will spend whatever is necessary.

If fundraising falls short, Michels said he will put in however much of his own money it takes to reach his goal.

“I don’t think we’ll get to that [point],” he said.

Some observers believe that Michels is likely to open his wallet at the tail end of the campaign for an advertising blitz, when it will be difficult for Feingold and the Democrats to respond.

Both campaigns are reluctant to talk about the complicated “millionaires amendment” to the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act and whether they think Michels will trigger it. But both sides think the issue will not ultimately affect the race.

Democrats believe Michels needs to only contribute about $824,000 of his own money before Feingold is allowed to collect checks at three times the legal individual contribution limit of $2,000. Republicans think the trigger is closer to $3 million or even $4 million.

The Federal Election Commission has told candidates to follow a formula that would seem to support the Democrats’ number but an FEC spokesman said Wednesday that the law could be subject to interpretation and that if a dispute arises, it would likely have to be settled by the election agency’s commissioners.

Dan Allen, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, says the point is probably moot anyway.

“He won’t need to write a big $2 million check,” Allen said.

Kraus disputes that and says he would not be surprised if Michels spends several million dollars of his fortune.

“He has said that he will spend whatever amount of money of his own personal fortune [it takes] to win,” Kraus said. “He has said his advisers have told him he needs to put in $2 [million] to $3 million of his own money.”

Kraus said that the NRSC has scaled back its reserved ad buy for Michels, pulling two of the three weeks’ worth of ads it was planning to pay for. Allen said he could not comment due to BCRA regulations, but expressed confidence that the committee could increase its ad buys in Wisconsin shortly before the election if it chose to.

Cara Morris, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, says that even if Michels pumps a million dollars or more into his campaign down the wire, it will likely be for naught.

“It’s a battleground state; it will reach saturation at some point,” Morris said, adding that “voter fatigue” will set in, diluting any impact a huge, 11th hour television buy would have.

Money will not be the deciding factor and Feingold will not be buried by Michels’ personal wealth, predicted Martin Farrell, a political science professor at Ripon College in Wisconsin.

“Feingold probably has more money than he needs already,” Farrell said.

If Feingold were to lose, it would probably be a result of a strong showing by President Bush carrying Michels into office, not a result of a cash deficit, Farrell said, adding that he believes Feingold will win.

All the latest polls show Feingold to be in good shape, usually with a double-digit lead, though Michels is still within striking distance.

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