‘Progressive Champion’ Feingold Defeated by Big Money, Dems’ Sagging Brand

Roger Bybee

With numerous Wisconsin industrial communities continuing to suffer through the Great Recession, one of labor’s most dedicated allies, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) fell victim Tuesday to a deep-pocketed opponent and many voters’ disgust with the status quo.

Feingold lost, 52% to 47%, to millionaire plastics CEO Ron Johnson, who chipped in $8.2 million of his own fortune for his campaign. Johnson was an unabashed advocate of the creative destruction” model of capitalism, ardently backed NAFTA-style free trade,” hinted at weakening Social Security and blamed global warming on sun spots.”

What a loss,” grimly stated David Newby, past president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO who retired in September, and a friend of Feingold for decades. I don’t know who there is to replace him.”


Russ was a true progressive champion on trade in the Senate,” said Newby. He understood from the start that NAFTA would be devastating to workers in Wisconsin and across the nation. He consistently opposed every free trade plan that encouraged the offshoring of our industrial base. Russ is a real progressive across the board. He opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and fought to protect personal freedoms.” (Feingold was the only senator to oppose the PATRIOT Act.)

That evaluation was shared by Chris Townsend, national political director of the United Electrical workers union. The only other senator in his class is Bernie Sanders [the independent democratic socialist from Vermont.] Russ had a deep understanding of all the issues important to workers.”

Feingold was widely scene as the state’s most courageous and effective senator since the days of Fighting Bob” LaFollette, the state’s most dominant political figure in the first three decades of the 1900s.


How could Russ Feingold have lost?

Feingold’s populist record and style – he held listening sessions in every one of Wisconsin’s counties throughout his 18 years in the Senate – simply didn’t matter in a year when Republican anger was at its hottest and independent voters were swayed by the GOP’s lower taxes, smaller government” formula for economic recovery.

Also proving irrelevant were Feingold’s endorsements from a number of right-leaning newspapers and his decisive triumphs over Johnson in debates where the shallowness of the Republican’s knowledge was painfully obvious.

The Republican fire in Wisconsin was stoked by record levels of spending:

Common Cause of Wisconsin estimated the total spent at $40 million to $45 million for the senate race, a record amount. Outside groups spent about $5 million, most of that on ads opposing Feingold.

Much of the spending against Feingold by outside groups of millionaires escaped disclosure. Feingold’s efforts to end the system of contributor payoffs and policy paybacks was crushed by the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision this year. 

After being eroded for years, the McCain-Feingold Act was gutted this year by the Supreme Court, helping to pave the way for millions of dollars to gush into campaigns from outside groups, most of whom do not have to reveal their donors.

All the Republican money helped to produce phenomenal turnouts in the ultra-wealthy heavily Republican suburbs surrounding Milwaukee. Waukesha County, west of the city, went 71-28.3% for Johnson, Ozaukee County 68.5%-31%, and Washington County, to the north, produced a 74.6% 24.7% bulge for the Republican.

Feingold had long been a target of corporate interests and their political allies. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky), the apparent new Senate majority leader, boasted in 1998, Don’t worry about campaign reform. Feingold’s going to be dead meat by Christmas.”


Twelve years later, Feingold was clearly brought down by the inability of the Obama administration to articulate how it was fighting hard for working people against Republican obstructionism, the absence of any clear unifying message from badly-scattered Democratic congresspeople and the corporate media’s unwillingness to expose the Republicans’ most transparent deceptions.

In 2008, Obama won the Democratic primary in Wisconsin with a majority of blue-collar males, the first and only time he achieved that in the primary season. In November, he won the state over McCain by 14 points.

But the Democrats’ inability to stem high unemployment and Obama’s appearances in the state in which he failed to capitalize on high levels of opposition to free trade” led to a stunningly severe erosion of support for the president.

In other states, taking a strong stance against the offshoring of jobs and the free trade” deals that enable it proved to be a firewall for House Democratic candidates against the sweeping Republican inferno. Three times as many fair-trade advocates won compared to Democrats backing policies that promote job exports, a study by Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch revealed.

But in Wisconsin, despite his decades of work fighting for working families and against NAFTA and other free-trade deals, Feingold, one of the country’s truly heroic political figures, was defeated by a corporate CEO whose platform translates into more job losses and more misery for workers. Given the core reason for Feingold’s defeat — a stagnant economy suffering high unemployment — the irony is tragic.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education.Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus.More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
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