Feingold's latest ad, "Bill of Goods," continues the odd and revealing messaging contest that's defined the race. In it, Johnson is portrayed as a conniving politician who "went to Washington and never looked back." He's repeatedly identified as "Senator Johnson." Feingold is never really identified, which is common for attack ads.
One reason for the unsubtle branding is that Johnson's own ads never mention that he was elected to the Senate six years ago. In "Pallets," his first spot, Johnson walks around the factory he ran before running, criticizing "career politicians" and saying that he "stayed put right here in Oshkosh" instead of outsourcing.
In his second spot, "Dishwasher," Johnson tells a Horatio Alger summary of his biography, from his teenaged dishwashing gigs to the "12-hour shift at night" on industrial equipment. "I'm working hard to keep Wisconsin prosperous and America safe," he says, again not mentioning where (Washington, D.C.) he is doing this.
The potency of Johnson's ads is acknowledged by Feingold's; the last shot of "Dishwasher," of Johnson keying open a door, is altered to show him leaving a factory for the Capitol in "Bill of Goods." Feingold's campaign has learned from the brutal experience of 2010, when Johnson's best ad — an award-winner — showed him diagramming the jobs of current U.S. senators, pointing out that almost all of them were trained as lawyers, and none were manufacturers like him.
That branding may be as potent for Johnson as Feingold's old stance against outside money (abandoned in the 2010 race, and this one) once was for him. In a strategically chintzy ad paid for by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Johnson and Feingold appear as animated characters — Johnson at work in shirtsleeves, in a factory, and Feingold running around in a suit, toting a wheelbarrow of money.
In fact, the only recent TV ad that mentions Johnson's current job was produced by Americans for Prosperity — and there's a reason for that. The Koch-founded AFP is a 501(c)(4) "social welfare" organization, meaning that its electioneering activity must appear to educate the public on legislation or major issues. To hit that mark, the AFP spot supporting Johnson tells voters to "call Senator Johnson" and thank him for his hard work — boilerplate language, not really a suggestion to bombard the senator's office with compliments.
The phony war in Wisconsin, and the distancing from Washington, was telegraphed at least a year ago, when the Washington Free Beacon obtained video of Wisconsin Democratic chair Martha Laning telling Democratic activists not to call Feingold a senator.
"Never call him 'Senator Feingold.' We are to call him 'Russ,'" she said. "They want us to say 'Russ' because the last campaign — it was all about '16 years, 16 years, 16 years, he's there too long.' And so they want to say, 'He's just one of us.' We want to go back to Russ being Russ."
Feingold had actually been in office for 18 years. The Chamber of Commerce's spot accuses Feingold of "28 years in office," adding his Washington service to his years as a state senator. The message there is the implicit one of "just Russ" — voters hate Washington, and it is safer to decry politicians who've been elected to office than it is to argue for supporting them based on what they did. Neither Feingold nor Johnson has been involved in any kind of scandal. Both have records to brag about, and while in Washington, Feingold's record made him much-adored by progressives. And at some point, possibly, the candidates will tell voters about this.