A Candidate's Costly Pledge on Donations
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 31, 1998; Page A1
WAUSAU, Wis. When Wisconsin Sen. Russell D. Feingold's efforts to pass a campaign finance law failed earlier this year, the Democrat took matters into his own hands. His reelection campaign, he said, would have strict limits on spending and he would shun financial assistance from the national Democratic Party.
Now Feingold finds himself locked in one of the most competitive races in the country, and even his allies say he has no one to blame but himself.
Feingold has been pummeled by millions of dollars worth of negative advertising by the Republican Party, anti-abortion forces and just about any other group seeking his ouster. In the process, he has seen his 15- to 20-point lead in the polls over conservative Rep. Mark Neumann (R-Wis.) disappear.
The problem, say Democrats here and in Washington, is that while Feingold was courageous in his attempt to transform the election into a referendum on campaign finance reform, the issue isn't resonating with voters and he is putting his career and the party's interests in jeopardy.
"Campaign finance reform is very important in my eyes but it's something important for the future, not this election," said John Tobakos, a retired manufacturing engineer, who came to hear Feingold address a group of seniors here this week. "I'm afraid that with the competition he has, putting so much emphasis on this has been limiting for him."
Tobakos urges Feingold to spend more time speaking out on bread and butter issues such as Medicare and Social Security reform.
A Rhodes Scholar and the co-author of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation that has been blocked in the Senate, Feingold asserts that the deluge of independent campaign expenditures by special interests and the national parties is a "cancer" on the political system. "Somebody's got to draw the line," he declares.
But by vowing to limit his campaign spending to about $3.9 million half of what an incumbent normally would spend on this race and rejecting the unregulated "soft money" contributions from the national Democratic party, Feingold virtually ceded Neumann and his national GOP allies an enormous financial advantage in a campaign that has been largely defined by hard-hitting statewide television advertising.
"I worry that people hear me talk and think that [campaign finance reform] is all I care about," Feingold acknowledged during a meeting with editors of the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram.
"It's a high risk strategy that involves more than just Feingold's campaign. The message we as a party want to get out is much broader than just campaign finance reform," a senior Senate Democratic leader said.
A week ago, Feingold clashed with Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, who wanted to pump $425,000 worth of Democratic "issue" ads into the state to boost Feingold's shaky propsects. Feingold ordered the national Democrats to "get the hell out of my state with those things."
A few of the ads were aired, but Kerrey agreed to pull back most of them, making it clear he thought it was a mistake.
If Republicans succeed in picking up five seats in the Senate, that would give them the 60-vote majority they need to break Democratic filibusters and push through their agenda. Feingold's seat is one of nine or 10 Democratic seats that are in jeopardy.
Adding to Democratic anxiety in Wisconsin, freshman Rep. Jay Johnson (D) appears to be in trouble in his race against GOP state legislator Mark Green, while the contests to fill the House seats being vacated by Neumann and retiring Rep. Scott Klug (R.) are both considered tossups. Republican victories in the gubernatorial and Senate races could have a spillover effect on the three competitive House races.
President Clinton became so alarmed by the specter of a Neumann victory that he pulled Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) aside at a White House bill signing ceremony earlier this month and asked: "What can we do to help Russ?"
Neumann bristles at what he describes as Feingold's "hypocrisy" in blasting him for allowing the GOP to spend more than $1 million on advertising to boost his Senate bid, while Feingold has benefitted from independent advertising by the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters. Those groups ran ads this year skewering Neumann's record on the environment, Social Security and a raft of other issues.
"He [Feingold] has led people in this state to believe that he's not taking outside money to run his campaign, and he's led people to believe that the independent expenditures, the outside money, is not here," Neumann said. "And that's a crock."
One of the leaders of the 1994 freshman class of House GOP revolutionaries, Neumann argues that the Senate campaign is really over issues he has been stressing spending and tax policy, the future of Social Security, partial birth abortion and flag burning and not campaign finance reform.
Like Feingold, Neumann agreed to abide by a campaign spending cap of nearly $4 million or $1 per registered voter in the state but rejected Feingold's call to shun financial assistance from the national parties.
In addition to the help Neumann has received from the National Republican Senatorial Committee for "independent" ads that closely resemble Neumann's own campaign advertising, the National Right to Life Committee has run radio and television ads criticizing Feingold's support of a late-term abortion procedure.. Veterans groups have criticized Feingold for opposing a constitutional amendment to bar flag desecration. And two seniors groups have done mass mailings across the state praising Neumann's proposals to preserve Social Security and correct an inequity in the Social Security benefits.
Feingold charges that the national Republicans and other groups outside the state have poured more than $6 million into the race on Neumann's behalf. Neumann and his aides say they have no idea how much outside aid he has received..
Feingold, 45, a former state legislator, unseated a GOP incumbent six years ago with an imaginative, off-beat televison ad campaign and a talent for staying above the fray. He seemed to have solidified his popularity by keeping a campaign pledge to visit all 72 counties in the state every year to hold town meetings.
Yet for much of his reelection campaign, the Democrat seemed to be sleepwalking. While Neumann, 44, fired up his conservative audiences with homespun fiscal philosophy and emotional appeals to veterans and anti-abortion forces, Feingold's delivery was wooden.
Adding to his woes, Feingold was forced to hoard most of his limited campaign resources until late in the year. This meant that the Republicans' increasingly vitriolic TV attack ads went largely unanswered and defined the campaign for much of August and September. One of the ads mocked Feingold's formidable record as a budget cutter by blaming him for spending money on an obscure federal study on the uses of cow gas.
More recently, the GOP began airing a 30-second spot showing an older woman saying: "You gotta watch that ol' Russ Feingold. He's slippery." The ad blamed Feingold for supporting a spending bill that he actually opposed.
But Feingold's campaign appears to have come to life during the past several weeks, as his media drive has fully kicked in and Neumann suffered a misstep in one of two televised debates. According to Kohl, Feingold "took the best shots from the other side early in the campaign" and now is bouncing back.
As he crisscrossed the state this week, Feingold waved off suggestions that his campaign strategy had backfired. "I hamstrung myself, obviously on purpose, because I want to show that people rather than money should run the system," he said. "I can win . . . but if I lose I believe it will have a significance in showing people that their democracy has been destroyed in terms of this money in Washington."
Staff writer Helen Dewar in Washington contributed to this report.
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