GREEN BAY, Wis. — As Packer fans streamed into Lambeau Field two Mondays ago, they couldn’t help but encounter the national Republican machine, literally and figuratively.
Besides “Reggie the Rally Rig,” a voter registration bus, parked in the Lambeau parking lot, Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie was on hand, talking about the need for Republicans to turn out in droves Nov. 2 and to boost Tim Michels, the GOP candidate for Senate. Fans who dropped by Reggie could meet Michels and Gillespie and stock up on free beer and hot dogs, along with Bush-Cheney stickers.
Near the gates, a solitary figure braving the evening chill in a short-sleeved Packer golf shirt was also greeting game-goers, offering nothing but a handshake and an introduction.
“Would you like to meet Sen. Russ Feingold?” one of three sign-wavers standing near the two-term Democratic Senator asked fans on their way in to the Packers-Tennessee Titan Monday Night Football matchup Oct. 11. “He’s right here.”
Republicans have salivated at the prospect of knocking off Feingold since then-Rep. Mark Neumann (R) held Feingold to only 51 percent of the vote in 1998.
They have mocked him for his lone dissenting vote against the USA Patriot Act and his work on campaign finance reform.
National Republicans were downright giddy when Michels, a Gulf War veteran and utility construction company executive, won the four-way GOP primary Sept. 14. GOP leaders felt it set up a nice contrast between the political novice with a military background and a 22-year politician who opposed the recent Iraq invasion.
Michels is also hoping to benefit from the fact that President Bush is heavily targeting Wisconsin this year, a state that last supported a Republican presidential candidate in 1984 but appears to be moving to the right.
Nonetheless, Feingold continues to hone his image as a maverick crusading for the little guy, whether in person or through his creative, folksy advertisements. And despite the absence of gadgets and celebrities, Feingold’s unique appeal was on display in Titletown — and throughout Wisconsin that Columbus Day weekend — as supporters and foes shouted to him as if they knew him personally.
“Hey Russ, you got my vote,” one fan said.
“Russ, you know Tim’s gonna beat you, right?” another offered.
“We’re pulling for you Russ,” one woman said, asking to have her picture taken with the diminutive lawmaker.
Pointing to the wall of Michels’ supporters nearby, Feingold opined that it showed poor strategy on the millionaire’s part not to disperse them all around Lambeau Field, as he had.
Just back from a weekend session of Congress and having traveled straight to Green Bay, Feingold was upbeat about his prospects, noting that he was getting roughly an equal number of positive and negative responses despite the heavy national Republican presence at the game.
“If a Democrat gets an even split in Green Bay, he’ll win by a landslide,” Feingold said.
Michels, a political neophyte, was also confident as he worked the Packer crowd and didn’t even seem fazed when he encountered Feingold supporters.
“I see you have a Feingold sticker, is there anything I can do to change your mind?” he politely asked a man from Ontario, Wis.
The retired Middleton high school teacher, who taught one of Feingold’s children, shook his head no.
“It’s going great,” Michels said, taking a break from glad-handing. “The ratio of positive to negative responses is about 20 to 1.” Michels said that those who are not supporting him are not as much against him as they are “stuck on Feingold.”
Michels has tried to gain traction by accusing Feingold of spending too much time on his signature issue, campaign finance reform, at the expense of Wisconsin priorities and for his vote against the Patriot Act.
He has had mixed success with those arguments.
Some Packer fans cited those “independent” acts as reasons why they like Feingold.
“I like that he’s really going to bat for campaign finance reform,” Mike Austad of Ontario said. “Small people will be better represented now” as a result of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act that Feingold and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) shepherded into law.
But others sounded as if they were quoting Michels campaign literature, which portrays the 42-year-old businessman as a newcomer with “relevant” real-life experience, in contrast to Feingold, the “career” politician.
“I think Russ has spent too much time on campaign finance reform,” said Todd LaDuke of Mondovi. “Michels has a military background, runs a business. I don’t think Feingold has been anything other than an attorney and politician.”
Unlike Michels, who is largely relying on advertising to introduce himself to voters, Feingold had a full slate of public events scheduled for Columbus Day weekend. But he had to drastically scale it back when Congress went into a weekend session to deal with intelligence reform and other matters before the pre-Election Day recess.
He spoke by telephone Saturday morning to a Milwaukee rally starring Illinois Senate candidate Barack Obama (D) that attracted 4,000 to 5,000 people.
Feingold flew back to Wisconsin that evening to attend a debate in Wausau, though it was pushed back an hour to accommodate his schedule, and he immediately returned to Washington. He didn’t return to Wisconsin until Monday evening, when he showed up at Lambeau Field.
Several Sunday events, including one with University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh students, were canceled, but a union rally proceeded in Sheboygan without him.
The 90-minute debate at Wausau East High School, the second of six Michels and Feingold have agreed to, drew about 350 people and was broadcast on statewide radio and on WSAW-TV, the local CBS affiliate.
The format allowed Feingold and Michels to directly question each other and even interrupt as the moderator served mostly to start the discussion and keep it from getting too unruly.
The issue was foreign policy and Michels tried to score points by playing up Feingold’s opposition to the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act — an Orwellian name designed to make people who opposed it look unpatriotic, according to Feingold.
Feingold stressed that he supports the war on terror, which is why he favored military action in Afghanistan, but felt the Bush administration did not make a compelling case for invading Iraq, has taken its eye off the real enemy, al Qaeda, and has gotten bogged down in Iraq as a result.
Michels, who served 12 years as an Army Airborne Ranger, argued that Feingold undermined the troops by voting against the war resolution and that he would have made it harder to track terrorists down domestically had he gotten his way on the Patriot Act.
Michels often repeated that no civil liberties violations have occurred as a result of the Patriot Act.
Feingold countered by saying that no one would know if a violation had occurred because the type of privacy invasions the law allows happen in secret.
While Michels got in some good jabs, Feingold showed a better command of the issues and deftly batted down some of his challenger’s assertions about past votes and actions.
Both men were clearly irritated with each other at times but Feingold largely remained composed, while Michels occasionally turned red and often tapped his foot — perhaps out of annoyance or by force of habit.
“In the first debate, [Feingold] kind of easily made a fool of Michels,” said Martin Farrell, a political science professor at Ripon College. “But some people might not care, maybe they want a fresh face and a business person rather than a politician.”
For his part, Michels said he has been happy with his debate performances.
“Everybody expected Senator Feingold just to clobber me in the debates and he probably should have being that he’s a 12-year U.S. Senator and a 22-year career politician,” Michels said. “He’s certainly regarded as one of the smarter, more polished Senators in Washington, D.C., but that did not happen. We held our own, we did very well, we articulated our side of the issues, and the response has just been incredible for both the debates and since then.”
One of the few voters in the Wausau audience who described herself as leaning to Feingold but willing to be persuaded said she came away unimpressed with Michels, however.
“Both were very articulate,” said Julie Willems Van Dijk of Wausau. “But Senator Feingold really has a sense of what it takes to be a U.S. Senator. I don’t think Michels has a real grasp.”
Last week the National Republican Senatorial Committee more or less abandoned Michels by canceling all of its reserved $1.2 million in television advertising for the state.
“Our campaign never expected or planned on soft-money independent expenditures from the NRSC in Wisconsin,” Michels said in response. “We didn’t need help from outside groups to win the primary, and we don’t need them to defeat Senator Feingold.”
Michels’ campaign emerged from the late GOP primary more or less broke and has been spending as much time fundraising as campaigning since then. He has refused to say how much of his own money he will spend — he contributed $1.5 million to his primary effort — but has said he is willing to part with whatever it takes to win if he cannot raise what he needs.
Although he is discouraging third parties from advertising on his behalf, Feingold is doing pretty well on the money front. By the end of August he had raised almost $9 million for the cycle and entered the home stretch with about $3 million in the bank, most of which was collected in about $60 increments, according to his campaign.
Michels’ best hope may be the fact that Wisconsin is turning more conservative.
“If Feingold doesn’t win, it will be because the conservative tide [swelling in Wisconsin] carried Michels into office,” Farrell said.
That said, Farrell believes enough Wisconsinites still hold to the state’s progressive tradition and like independent-minded lawmakers enough to re-elect Feingold.
Wisconsin has an interesting mix of maverick and progressive politicians in its history.
Milwaukee elected three Socialist mayors in the 20th century, but Wisconsin also saw anti-Communist Sen. Joe McCarthy (R) rise to power.
When McCarthy died in office, he was replaced in a special election by William Proxmire (D), who was best known for spending next to nothing on his re-election campaigns and for inventing the Golden Fleece Award — a dubious prize he handed out to those he felt were bilking the federal government.
Some admirers see Feingold as a combination of Proxmire and “Fighting Bob” LaFollette (R), a Congressman, governor and Senator from Wisconsin who helped stoke the nationwide Progressive movement that prevailed during the Gilded Age.
“There’s still a certain amount of respect [in Wisconsin] for a maverick,” Farrell said.
Stickin’ to the Union
As Wisconsin turns more conservative, it is blue-collar workers whom the GOP needs to broaden its coalition.
Some Republicans, like former four-term Gov. Tommy Thompson, have done this successfully. But Feingold has managed to keep most unions in the Democratic column.
The only unions to endorse Michels in the Senate race are certain construction-trades locals that may have business with his company.
On the night of Oct. 10, Feingold was supposed to speak at Emil Mazey Hall in Sheboygan, the meeting place of United Autoworkers Local 833, which represents employees of the Kohler Co., one of the world’s largest makers of kitchen and bathroom products. Burgers and beer were on tap in the smokey union hall, which could easily have been mistaken for a Veterans of Foreign Wars or Moose Lodge.
Casually dressed co-workers and neighbors mingled at tables and chatted more about real life than politics.
Feingold was stuck in Washington on Senate business, but he would have found a receptive crowd.
“People respect his integrity,” Ervin Ott of Sheboygan said. “He has shown independence. Michels has a lot of money behind him, Feingold doesn’t support the big-money interests, which is why people like him.”
Ott seemed to be referring to how Feingold repeatedly fights against Congressional pay raises and takes the salary in effect at the beginning of each of his six-year terms, making him one of the least wealthy Members of the Senate.
Feingold is given so much credit for his independence that one union official even praised the Senator for going against the wishes of labor bosses at times.
“He is very independent and loyal,” Bill Stephen of Oak Creek said. “You know he votes what he thinks is best for people; he doesn’t give in to pressure. Sometimes he even votes against the unions.”