MILWAUKEE — On the morning of the Green Bay Packers' first home game, when other politicians — including Republican Senate candidate Ron Johnson — headed north to politick and tailgate with the cheeseheads, Sen. Russ Feingold was nowhere near Lambeau Field.
Instead, the three-term Wisconsin Democrat waited under gray skies in a south side Milwaukee neighborhood on Sunday for the annual Mexican Independence Day parade. His 30 or so volunteers and staffers wore navy blue T-shirts that said "Standing Up for Wisconsin" on the front and had a spine on the back. No one seemed to think it was strange to see the short Jewish man in a sport coat and khakis walking among the cheering Latino crowds that lined the sidewalks.
"Soy Russ Feingold!" he called out, waving. "Mucho gusto!"
First elected to the Senate in 1992, Feingold has yet to have an easy re-election, a trend he attributes to his independence in Washington, D.C. Once viewed as potential presidential timber, this year Feingold is one of Republicans' top targets, and there is evidence to suggest he's in real trouble. A Public Policy Polling survey of likely voters taken Sept. 18-19 and released on Tuesday showed Johnson ahead of Feingold, 52 percent to 41 percent.
But Feingold seems unfazed. He said polling taken for his campaign around the Sept. 14 primary showed him ahead. Still, Johnson is partly self-funding his campaign and won't lack for resources in the home stretch. As of Aug. 25, Feingold had raised $13.7 million and Johnson had raised $6.2 million this cycle, including $4.4 million in loans from himself.
In the six weeks from now to Election Day, Feingold said, he plans to emphasize his role as an independent, bipartisan and accessible representative for the Badger State. Every year since he was first elected, he has held a listening session in all 72 of Wisconsin's counties, and he likes to tell stories about the legislative solutions to problems constituents brought to him at these sessions. He said he plans to highlight his work for more veterans centers in Wisconsin, for broader jobs tax cuts and for cutting spending, as evidenced in his Control Spending Now Act.
Kevin Baird, his wife and their two young sons were among the Feingold volunteers at the parade. Baird, a 48-year-old truck driver who lives in Milwaukee, said he appreciates Feingold's vote in favor of health care reform — his mom is dying of breast cancer — and also his perspective on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bairds canvass on Feingold's behalf in their free time.
"I love Russ Feingold," Baird said. "I'll fight and die for him."
Feingold is counting on loyalty like that to help him win again, and he seems to take pride in noting how political pundits have unwisely predicted his political demise before.
In 2004, the year Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) narrowly edged President George W. Bush in Wisconsin, Feingold faced an opponent similar to Johnson. Republican Tim Michels, a businessman and Gulf War veteran, spent his own money, questioned Feingold's lone dissenting vote on the USA PATRIOT Act and ultimately finished with just 44 percent of the vote. One of Feingold's favorite anecdotes is about his 1998 race, in which he recalls the four Republican and Democratic commentators on CNN's "Crossfire" predicted his loss right before the election; he won that race with 51 percent of the vote.
Just a Normal Guy'
Johnson is nonetheless encouraged by the number of votes Feingold received in previous wins versus the Republican vote total in the Sept. 14 primary — where Johnson faced only nominal opposition. At two Republican events over the weekend, he explained to supporters that since he got more than half a million votes in the primary, he would only need each of his voters to commit two friends to vote for him in the general election in order to eclipse the 900,000 or so votes Feingold got in his last midterm win.
At the 10th annual Fall Fest, a Republican fundraiser in GOP Rep. Paul Ryan's district about an hour's drive southwest of Milwaukee, Johnson got a standing ovation as he came to the microphone. Signs from Republican campaigns, including Bush/Cheney '04 and McCain/Palin '08, lined the walls of the large white tent that had been erected in an orchard. Wearing a red plaid shirt and jeans, Johnson depicted himself as "just a normal guy who's every bit as concerned about the direction of this country as you are."
"I'm 55 years old. I grew up in an America that valued hard work, that celebrated success. Remember that?" he said. "Now what do we do? Our society seems to demonize successful people, to try to tear everybody down to the same level."
Members of the audience ate "pork stimulus sandwiches," which were served next to paper pigs labeled "Russ" and "Tom" after the top two statewide Democratic candidates, and drank Miller Lite, Diet Coke and red wine in plastic cups.
Rose Parquette, a 58-year-old school administrator from Kenosha, said she voted for Johnson in the primary and would vote for him again in the general election. She was suspicious of Feingold.
"We don't like politicians who say one thing in our district and go to Washington and do something else," she said.
Yet Johnson has been accused of a similar kind of saying one thing and doing something else. In multiple ads and news stories, Democrats have accused the Republican of taking government loans or soliciting stimulus funds for organizations he was involved with even while publicly opposing the stimulus. The most recent charge was that Johnson made calls on behalf of the Grand Opera House in Oshkosh, checking on the availability of stimulus funds for its restoration. Parquette said she was aware of the accusations but that they wouldn't change her vote.
"I think in so many cases those types of things have been blown out of proportion," she said.
Johnson said four votes motivated him to oppose Feingold in his first race for elected office: the last two budget bills, the stimulus and health care.
"The straw that broke this camel's back was when he was the deciding vote on the health care bill," he told the booing crowd. "Let's face it, that health care bill is designed to lead to a government-run takeover of our health care system, which is exactly what Russ Feingold wants."
No Dancing in the End Zone
Johnson went to the Packers game on Sunday morning — they beat the Buffalo Bills, 34-7 — but he didn't show for a debate that Feingold had agreed to in Eau Claire on Sunday night. Feingold used it as a rally instead, occasionally addressing a podium to his left labeled with Johnson's name, and he didn't shy away from his more controversial votes.
"We were right to pass the Recovery Act, we were right to pass the stimulus bill. Out of the some $800 billion in the bill, $300 billion almost was for direct tax cuts for 95 percent of all working families in America," he said. "Are you against that, Mr. Johnson? I can't seem to get an answer."
Following the rally, retired middle-school math teacher Paul Hoff, 76, explained why Feingold is the only candidate he has ever given to on a monthly basis.
"I guess he kind of took the place of Sen. [William] Proxmire as my political hero," he said, citing Feingold's stance on human rights and the stimulus. "I just know Russ so well, and I trust him."
That trust will be tested in the final weeks of the campaign. Both candidates told their supporters to brace for the worst from the other side.
Each has tried to paint the other as out of touch: Feingold says Johnson can't empathize with the working class because he's so wealthy and has never dealt with many of Wisconsin's industries; Johnson says Feingold can't understand those concerns because he's been a politician for nearly 30 years. Both urged their supporters to ignore the accusations, and Feingold urged his supporters in Eau Claire to ignore stories about a Democratic enthusiasm gap.
"What should you do now?" Feingold said as he concluded his Eau Claire rally. "Well, what you have to do is understand that the other side is already dancing in the end zone, like who is that Viking receiver who used to be awful about that? Randy Moss!"
And so it goes: If there's one thing everybody in Wisconsin can agree on, it's how terrible the Vikings are.