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Feingold Couldn’t Re-Create ’92 Magic

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Feingold and Johnson square off in an October debate in Milwaukee.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. 

Russ Feingold’s reputation as a maverick and clever campaign ads were supposed to insulate him from the national wave that swept out dozens of his Democratic colleagues. 

But after 18 years in office, the shine had worn off the Wisconsin Democrat’s independent image, Feingold’s ads this year were remarkably average, and a political neophyte from Oshkosh unseated the incumbent in a state where Republicans haven’t won a Senate race in almost a quarter-century. 

In 1992, Feingold rode to Washington with a series of offbeat television ads that helped him cut through the clutter of a Democratic primary and knock off Sen. Bob Kasten (R) in the general election. 

This year, it was Republican Ron Johnson’s ads that received recognition for their creativity, putting Feingold’s reputation to the test and ultimately defeating the Democrat by 5 points in a race that was decided well before Election Day. 

The Senator was clearly working against a wave of frustrated voters at the state and national levels, but the biggest question is how Feingold’s veteran campaign team was unable recapture his political magic.

The Redefinition of Russ

“As long as he held on to his independent moniker, he was pretty much unbeatable,” Johnson’s pollster, Wes Anderson, told Roll Call. “If we don’t explore that, we don’t win.”

Through early focus groups, the Johnson campaign believed there was a crack in Feingold’s independent armor. It “zoned in” on two key elements of Feingold’s strength: “fiscally responsible and independent maverick.” It tried to peel away the independent label and claim it for Johnson.

“We zoned in on those two things and had the ammunition from the last two years with Obama,” said Johnson’s media consultant, Curt Anderson, Wes Anderson’s brother, who worked at the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 1992 when Feingold defeated Kasten.

Curt Anderson said the Johnson team believed Feingold’s independence was based on some “inconsequential votes.” 

Feingold told voters on the campaign trail he’d opposed bank bailouts under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He may be best known as the single dissenting vote against the USA PATRIOT Act. 

But in an election in which voters were most concerned about the economy, Republicans focused on Feingold’s votes for the $787 billion economic stimulus bill, health care reform and Obama’s budget. 

Democrats admit that instead of rewriting history and distorting Feingold’s record, Republicans were able to focus on what they believe he is now. By the end of the race, Feingold’s greatest strength was sapped. 

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