Feingold, on the campaign trail, tells seniors, students they can prove the polls wrong
By Greg Bump
It’s early on a Thursday morning in La Crosse, just more than two weeks before the fall election.
U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold is at a diner called Ardie’s meeting with a group of 10 senior citizens to discuss Social Security, the federal health care reform bill and its affect on Medicare. As the seniors sip coffee and pick at giant sweet rolls, the Middleton Democrat lays out what the bill does and doesn’t do -- that it fills the donut hole in Medicare Part B by 2020, that it extends the solvency of the Medicare program by a dozen years, and, most importantly, that the health care bill doesn’t cut any guaranteed benefits to seniors.
“It’s a scare tactic to suggest it does,” he emphasizes.
Feingold gives remarks for 10 minutes, then he listens to the seniors concerns, answers their questions. The tone is relaxed and conversational. Feingold appears to enjoy the tough questions on complicated topics, and the seniors appear to like the exchange.
It’s the type of meeting the three-term incumbent has held thousands of times in communities across Wisconsin, most famously at his 72 listening sessions every year in each county of the state.
National and state pundits describe this race as the fight of his political life, but if the weight of a tight race is bearing down on him it’s not apparent. Those who have known him over the years and watched him work up close say he thrives under pressure.
“He’s one of the most focused people you’d ever work for,” said one former campaign hand. “He’s cool, calm, collected and driven.”
Feingold says his open and transparent style, one he’s cultivated over a 28-year political career, is a clear distinction between him and Republican opponent Ron Johnson. Feingold says Johnson is hiding from the media and voters, unwilling to answer tough questions. In a recent Politico article, Johnson says it will be different once he takes office. Then he will voice his true feelings.
As little as six months ago, it seemed improbable to most that Feingold would be in danger of losing this election. A series of Republican challengers, including Madison developer Terrence Wall and former state Commerce Secretary Dick Leinenkugel, didn’t seem to pose much of a threat after Tommy Thompson confirmed he wouldn't challenge Feingold.
But Johnson was surrounded by Tea Party buzz as he entered the race just before the state GOP convention in May. Public polls have had him ahead for months, with the polling aggregator Pollster.com generally showing a 6-percentage-point lead for Johnson and Feingold spinning his wheels in the mid-40s.
Feingold, however, claims his internal polls show the race to be a dead heat. At the senior roundtable in LaCrosse, he says internal polling shows the race tied among definite voters.
“If you get into the next category of people, people who may or may not vote … we’re way ahead,” he says.
In an interview with WisPolitics at a second senior roundtable later at an Eau Claire hotel, Feingold says the national polls are flawed.
“They’re not using a technique of looking at voters that is accurate. They’re mass-produced,” he says. “They do a whole lot of polls all over the country, and they’re not as tailored to the specifics of the state.”
Feingold says his pollster, Paul Maslin, has done more polls in Wisconsin than just about anyone.
“I listen carefully to how he puts these things together, and it is entirely credible that he’s got a better read on this,” Feingold says. “I’m hearing rumors out of Washington that the Republicans know very well this race has tightened.”
Feingold campaign insiders believe they've drawn blood from Johnson on the issues of free trade and outsourcing jobs to foreign countries. They think the message appeals to independent and undecided voters who, when weighing the candidates, will determine Johnson hasn’t convinced them he’s on their side when it comes to jobs.
In wave elections, independents tend to break away from incumbents. Feingold’s always had strong appeal for independent voters, but data from the public polls show them breaking away from him this cycle.
But Feingold says his polling indicates they’re coming back home.
“We show that it’s either very close (with independents) or we’re a little ahead,” Feingold says, acknowledging there's general frustration amongst voters as they try to decide whom to blame for a poor economy.
“I’m making the case that I have voted against the policies that led to this and I have solutions to solve it, and we have made up enormous ground in the area of independents -- very difficult earlier in the year -- by making that case,” Feingold said. “I think times are tough and when one party is in control you’re going to have independents asking some questions.”
Feingold has been through tough elections before, campaign aides note. In his first re-election bid in 1998, another Republican wave year, he ran up against then-U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann and was trailing in polls at roughly this point in that cycle. Feingold pledged to limit his campaign spending to $1 per voter, a maddening proposal to his campaign staff.
“We had two million in the bank he wouldn’t let us spend,” recalls one former aide. “For him a re-election is never just good enough. It’s like, ‘I want to do something to give me a challenge.’”
When the dust settled, Feingold prevailed with a 2-point win.
The campaign says they’re closing the gap this election season by doing events like senior roundtables. The seniors who attend come through different channels – some get direct calls from the campaign; others learn through local senior organizations or are invited by friends.
Feingold says he knows those who come are good communicators. They will relay to others the difference between him and Johnson on issues like Social Security and Medicare.
“Some of these people are the best workers I know in the state,” he said.
The other purpose is exposure in an election where the airwaves are choked with political ads and with Johnson, who has plowed $7 million of his own fortune into the effort, putting together a paid media campaign of presidential race proportions. That provides a contrast with Johnson’s slick ads, Feingold says.
“For people to see me directly talking to seniors in their community, instead of hiding like Mr. Johnson does, gives people also the truth which is I’m a candidate who’s actually out campaigning and available,” he says.
At the events, Feingold tells the seniors he’s proud of his vote on the health care reform bill, pointing out he’s the only senator in the country running ads touting his support of the much-maligned bill.
A woman in Eau Claire laments that the GOP has turned “Obamacare” into a slur.
“We have to embrace it,” he tells her.
He tells the Eau Claire seniors group Johnson “has enormous sympathy” for the insurance industry.
“The whole campaign is based on a fraudulent claim about the (health care) bill,” Feingold says. “I think the people of Wisconsin are smarter than that.”
Feingold says he’ll fight any effort to privatize Social Security, and that Johnson is open to privatization. He tells them Johnson has vowed to keep the program only for those currently enrolled, but makes no promises it will be there for future generations. He calls that “cynical and insulting” to seniors.
“When people are struggling right now, this guy is saying there is no guarantee,” Feingold says. “He thinks he’s going to buy you off by saying you’re taken care of, as if you don’t care about your children or your grandchildren.”
Feingold says he wants to put together a bipartisan commission to looking into the long-term solvency of Social Security. He said the commission could produce an unamendable bill to Congress.
“When you get re-elected,” says one man, “don’t take too long with that commission. This is the second straight year with no (cost of living) increase. Some of these folks are living on the razor’s edge.”
One woman mentions that Democrats are getting beaten up badly on spending.
“I hope you will continue to vote for more stimulus,” she says. “I think we can use more stimulus to get things back on track.”
“I supported the stimulus because even though it wasn’t ‘paid for,’ it was an emergency. Everything was dead stopped,” Feingold says. “It was an unusual, emergency step that worked. It prevented a depression.”
Feingold says his plan for reducing the deficit include a bill banning earmarks and giving the president line-item veto power to pull out earmarks that sneak into spending bills for separate votes. Republican U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan worked with him on the legislation, and it has gotten support from President Obama, he notes.
One man tells him he’s had a hard time explaining to veterans Feingold’s stance on flag burning.
“If you can do anything about that in the city of La Crosse it might be worth a few votes,” he says.
Feingold doesn’t mince words.
“Anybody who burns the flag is an absolute idiot and should be treated with no respect,” Feingold says. “But I’ll be darned if I’m going to let that guy make us amend the Bill of Rights for the first time in our history.”
One La Crosse senior says afterward he’s not buying into the polls. He calls Feingold the most honest and trustworthy politician he’s seen.
“I never put a lot of credence in polls,” says Dave Krieg, a 79-year-old former marketing director. “It’s more important that everyone gets out and votes.”
Another tool are early voting rallies. On this day Feingold stops by two UW campuses, in La Crosse and River Falls, to urge students to cast ballots early. The theory is that these young people will be energized and available to help with GOTV efforts on Election Day.
At the “vote early” rally at the UW-La Crosse Cartwright Student Center, young volunteers in blue shirts are there to help. Longtime campaign aide Paula Zellner is there ahead of the candidate to direct traffic.
A handful of protesters are stationed outside the event, a few holding Johnson campaign signs, another with a placard bearing anti-abortion slogans. They go largely unnoticed by the eager Feingold fans.
James Smith, a young Johnson volunteer who works at Gundersen Lutheran Hospital, says he’s there to let people know Johnson has a presence in the city.
“I think (Johnson’s) a real fresh voice for us in Washington,” he says. “Russ Feingold’s been there 18 years. It’s time for new leadership this year.”
Smith says he’s a conservative who’s against the health care reform and the stimulus bill.
“I don’t think it stimulated anything but national debt,” he says.
Inside the rally, in a conference room next to the student center’s coffee shop, Feingold is introduced by state Rep. Jen Shilling.
Feingold fires up the 120 students and a few older folks wave Feingold “Forward 10” signs. She tells them this is shaping up to be the toughest race of Feingold’s career.
"We need to stand up and be united to elect Russ Feingold to the U.S. Senate,” she says.
The students shout their approval as Feingold leaps energetically to the podium.
“The idea of this enthusiasm gap on our side is a figment of the Republicans’ imagination,” he says as the crowd roars.
He tears into Johnson for trying to buy the election with an avalanche of TV ads, for calling job losses wrought by trade agreements “creative destruction.” But he really connects when he reminds them that Johnson aims to repeal the health care bill.
The bill allows for children to be covered under their parents insurance plan until the age of 26, a benefit that would be eliminated if Johnson gets his way, he tells them.
“The last thing you need is to have Ron Johnson win and repeal that right,” he says.
The rally is a call for the students to vote early. When it finishes, volunteers are standing ready to give rides to the polls, but few appear to be taking the opportunity.
Angela Ko, a junior, says she voted for Obama in 2008 but considers herself an independent. Most of her friends are Republican, she says.
“In 2008 Obama had star status.”
She is leaning toward Feingold, but notes that Johnson is coming to the campus in a couple days. And she doesn’t take advantage of the offers to get a ride to the polls and vote early.
“I’ll do it on my own time,” she says.
The River Falls event that winds up the day draws about the same number despite a chilly wind at the outdoor event.
Mike Bump, a UW-RF senior, calls himself an independent who has voted for Republicans in the past. Bump says he watched the debate between Feingold and Johnson earlier in the week, and says he didn’t like what he’s seen from Johnson.
“A few cheap talking points and a lot of campaign ads,” Bump is how he describes Johnson.
Bump says he’s impressed that Feingold has been called the biggest enemy of lobbyists in Washington.
“It means he’s not pliable to special interests,” he says.
He was also impressed to learn that Feingold was the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act.
“He stuck to his guns at a time when that was probably a very unpopular vote,” he says.
Listen to the interview with Feingold: http://www.wispolitics.com/1006/101014Feingold_intvw.mp3
Note: A similar profile of Ron Johnson's campaign will appear in this space next week.