In his latest TV ad, Russ Feingold displays that most hated of symbols in Wisconsin, a Minnesota Viking celebrating in the end zone. His point is that Ron Johnson and his corporate backers are getting too cocky before the votes are cast. One area where Feingold is taking a gamble that Johnson will get to finish that end zone dance, but a gamble that could burnish his reputation as an independent and principled voice, is his rejection of money from the Democrat’s campaign arm in the Senate:
An ardent campaign reformer (who teamed up with former maverick John McCain to pass landmark 2002 campaign finance legislation), Feingold defied the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) in his white-knuckle 1998 campaign by demanding it take its attack ads off the air in Wisconsin. Feingold’s objection was that these commercials were being paid for with unregulated “soft money” that his campaign reform legislation was then attempting to ban.
But this time around (even though political donations to the DSCC are now regulated by the McCain-Feingold act), Feingold is equally adamant that the party committee should let him fight his own battles against Johnson. (The DSCC, which is running advertising in six states, has not been on the air in Wisconsin).
“It’s because these are almost always inherently attack ads based on cookie-cutter notions of how you should talk to the people of Wisconsin,” Feingold responded after I pressed him for a reason for his stubborn resistance to a DSCC ad campaign. “I don’t want that kind of help,” Feingold said moments later. “I consider it to be outside help of a kind that is uncontrolled and tends to believe in a philosophy of slash-and-burn politics. That’s frankly not who I am. I don’t want to win that way.”
This is a political year in which few imperiled Democrats are prissy about campaign tactics, since the party’s unofficial slogan seems to be, “The Republican is worse.” But for Russ Feingold, who often seems a throw-back to Wisconsin’s early 20th century progressive reformers, process and principle are synonymous. As he put it, in words that few contemporary politicians would utter, “To me, not to have certain values about what it takes to win an election makes it not worth it to win an election. So I’m going to stick to those values. And if I lose because of it, so be it. And if I win because of it, even better.”
There are a couple things here. First, Feingold doesn’t want the kind of support that comes with DSCC campaign spending – the attack ads cut against his image, particularly as a campaign finance reformer. But the other reason Feingold gives for rejecting DSCC support is that he honestly thinks they run bad ads. I wish I could remember a single one of them from this cycle, but it takes some thinking. They had a clean hit on Christine O’Donnell, but that’s an unmissable target. In other states, the ads have been mostly unmemorable, IMO. Feingold has made an assessment that those ads would not help his campaign.
That said, I think there’s room for outside ad spending, only from a group willing to hit hard. Johnson is very vulnerable on his opposition to a bill in the Wisconsin legislature that would aid victims of child sex abuse. It turns out he was on the finance committee of the Green Bay Diocese, who at the time was fighting lawsuits from victims of sex abuse. I think an ad attacking Johnson on that could really raise his negatives. But Feingold would rather win his way. We’ll see if he’s correct.
UPDATE: Big unforced error by the Feingold camp, they didn’t license the footage in their ad of Randy Moss from the National Football League. They charge enormous amounts of money, especially if you use the footage without licensing it.