“We felt like we had to add one or two issues to the mix,” said Feingold pollster Paul Maslin, a Madison resident and new member of the team this cycle. “Trade was great, but that alone wasn’t going to be enough.”
“I don’t even consider it our stuff,” said Eichenbaum, who is disappointed and tired of answering questions about why this year’s ads were so different than in the past. “Had we won with this stuff, I wouldn’t have taken credit for it.”
The problem for Feingold was that while few people said the Senator ran a good campaign, his opponent ran a great one.
The plastics manufacturer who had never run for office surprised a depressed Republican field by jumping into the race days before the late May GOP convention.
For much of the cycle, Tommy Thompson was thought to be the GOP’s best challenger against Feingold. In retrospect, the former governor would have been an easier target for Democrats because he had his own record and couldn’t credibly attack Feingold as a career politician.
Johnson, on the other hand, had hardly been involved in politics before this year. His nonpolitical background gave his opponents less to attack, and his late entry gave them less time to do it.
“Feingold is one tough customer,” said Johnson media consultant Curt Anderson of OnMessage Inc. “Why give him more time to cut you to pieces?”
If it weren’t for the May convention, Johnson probably would have waited even longer. But once he got in, the race was on to define the unknown commodity.
“If Ron didn’t go out and define himself, then someone else was going to tell the story,” Anderson said.
Maslin said the Feingold campaign believed it had one shot during the summer to go after Johnson, “but it would have been a big gamble and taken a lot of money.”
While Democrats held most of their fire until the fall, Johnson used his checkbook — spending at least $8 million of his own money — to define himself and establish a level of credibility that helped him withstand Feingold attacks later in the race.
“There was nothing special about Johnson. What made him special was the fact that he didn’t carry broad negatives,” one Democratic strategist said. “A lot of it was keeping his nose clean.”
But when Johnson did make a potential mistake, misstep or misstatement, his campaign moved quickly.
“I’m not a slick politician, and I made a mistake,” Johnson said in a radio ad cut five hours after Feingold attacked his support for the Second Amendment following an unfortunate comment about licensing guns. “It wasn’t the first time, and it probably won’t be the last.”
Republicans were concerned that Democrats would go after Johnson for saying that Washington treated Social Security like a Ponzi scheme. So the Johnson campaign took a risk and brought up the third-rail issue by airing “Money Spent” in early September to better explain his statement. By the time Feingold aired his “Off the Table” ad — in which he swept old toys off a table onto the floor — a month later, Social Security wasn’t a factor because Johnson’s comments were nothing new and the ad was confusing.