Feingold faces a brave new campaign finance world

Former Sen. Russ Feingold is going to have to navigate a campaign finance world vastly different from the one he’d hoped to create if he decides to seek a Senate comeback.

The Wisconsin Democrat co-authored bipartisan campaign finance reforms that were blown apart by the Supreme Court in 2010. That same year, he refused to accept most help from outside groups in his reelection bid, eventually losing in the GOP wave spurred, in part, by massive spending from Republican outside groups. 

{mosads}Now, Democrats are anxiously waiting to find out how much outside help he’ll be willing to accept — and how he can do that without opening himself up to charges of hypocrisy from Republicans. 

“He has to find a way to navigate the modern realities without undermining the brand he built over 18 years in the Senate,” said Wisconsin-based Democratic strategist Joe Zepecki. “The challenge is to find a way to raise the millions it will take without undermining his core brand. I don’t know what the answer is but it’s certainly one he is going to have to figure out.”

Feingold is widely expected to seek a rematch against Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who beat him in 2010 by 5 percentage points. 

But in a more favorable presidential year, Democrats feel much better, especially having the incumbent’s record to attack. They have been hammering Johnson on allegations his staff failed to act on complaints from a whistleblower over abuse at a Veterans Affairs facility in Wisconsin. 

In fact, Feingold starts out with an early edge this time — he led Johnson by 9 percentage points in a survey earlier this month conducted by Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling. 

Feingold was hindered some in his first match-up against Johnson by his refusal of Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee offers to air ads, rejecting what he described as “outside help of a kind that is uncontrolled and tends to believe in a philosophy of slash-and-burn politics.”

The Wisconsin Democratic Party and a few unions spent on Feingold’s behalf, but their money was dwarfed by the millions of dollars from Johnson and his GOP allies on their way to victory.

That wasn’t the only time Feingold set limits on who could help him, inhibiting his cash flow to claim the moral high ground. In 1998, he rejected DSCC money out of principle, because, at the time, it was unregulated “soft money.” 

The move worked, as Feingold pulled out a narrow victory, despite being outspent. His first race, in 1992, saw him write three campaign principles on his garage door in an iconic ad including promises to “rely on Wisconsin citizens, not out-of-staters, to pay for this campaign.”

Much has changed since 1992, and even since 2010. Super-PACs were just coming into their own on the GOP side in his last race, while Democrats had none to speak of. 

Overall, campaign spending has gone through the roof. The law that Feingold helped pass in 2002, along with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), continues to restrict the amount of money candidates and parties can spend, putting them at a disadvantage relative to big-money super-PACs.

On top of that, Johnson was able to spend $14 million of his own money on his 2010 election and could spend heavily this time around as well.

Democrats point out Johnson will face criticism for self-funding. They note that others who support campaign finance reform have successfully dismissed charges of campaign spending hypocrisy, arguing that they want the rules changed but aren’t willing to unilaterally disarm and put themselves at a disadvantage.

And Feingold has indicated  he’s willing to adapt to the new rules, even if he doesn’t like them. His PAC, Progressives United, added an accompanying nonprofit arm, though the group places its own limits on contributions that could be unlimited. It also discloses its donors.

Feingold’s allies indicate he will take a different approach this election, and argue that comparing the Democrat’s past pledges to this cycle is an apples-to-oranges comparison.

“However Russ decides to talk about this, the entire range of options in 2016 is completely different from 2010. There’s no exact analogy — all the players are different,” said one Democratic strategist close to Feingold.

But the Wisconsin Democrat’s streak of success in the state, from 1992 through 2004, was built on crossover voters who liked his principled, independent streak — and Republicans are looking for any and all opportunities to prove he isn’t who he was when he first went to D.C.

“Stanford professor Russ Feingold is your typical career politician who says one thing and does another — with Exhibit A being campaign finance reform,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Jahan Wilcox told The Hill. “Feingold broke his promise to rely on Wisconsinites to pay for his campaign and even set up a PAC to prolong his political career. Simply put, professor Feingold isn’t who he claims to be.”

Democrats expect that he’ll accept outside help this time around.

“The conversation [with Feingold] was ‘It’s a new day now.’ In 2010, Citizens United started about two-thirds of the way through on that race — I believe it was in June on a November election. It’s a different world now. And he knows that; he’s smart,” DSCC Chairman Jon Tester (Mont.) told The Hill last month. “You learn a lot more from defeat than you learn from victory, and he’ll utilize that if he gets into this race.”

Democratic strategists argue that Republican attacks on the topic will backfire.

“Voters will easily see through the hypocrisy of Republicans like Ron Johnson launching campaign finance attacks when their campaigns are kept afloat by countless millions of special interest dollars,” said DSCC spokesman Justin Barasky. “Any Republican who attacks Democrats for not fighting with one hand tied behind their back is nothing more than a desperate politician who is afraid of losing his seat.”

This story was updated at 9:35 a.m.

Tags John McCain Jon Tester Ron Johnson
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