EAU CLAIRE, Wis.—It’s Pat Kreitlow’s job to introduce Russ Feingold on Tuesday night. The third-term senator is waiting behind a curtain; in front of the curtain are about 200 Democrats, half of them students at the University of Wisconsin campus here. Kreitlow is a state senator, on the ballot this year, but he used to be a journalist and academic, and he uses this occasion to give a history lesson.
“Let me tell you something about angry millionaires,” says Kreitlow. “They can buy a lot of stuff. After they buy the houses, plural, after they buy the cars, after they buy the club memberships, there’s other things that some of them can do with their money.”
Heads start nodding. Kreitlow has packed a lot of references in there. Feingold’s opponent, Ron Johnson, is a plastics manufacturer who got into the race in May and opened his wallet. His most notable prior engagement with politics was inviting conservative scholar Charles Murray to his hometown, Oshkosh, for a lecture on education. He has proudly said he never visited Washington, ever, until being dragged there this year for campaign meetings. Hours before this rally, the Onion published a parody column “by” Johnson in which the ur-novice argued that it was time for “an outsider who doesn’t even know what casting a vote means.” So, not much question who the chief “angry millionaire” is.
“This isn’t class warfare,” says Kreitlow. “This is about that angry sliver of the very well-off who think that along with buying the houses, and the cars, and everything else, maybe we ought to buy a cable network. Maybe we ought to buy some newspapers. Maybe we ought to buy a whole bunch of radio stations, because then we’re buying the message machine, and then we can buy elections. It’s not briefcases full of money that go to candidates, necessarily. It’s buying the message machine, and the players involved who are going to make the decisions, from that horrible Citizens United case before the Supreme Court, to an obstructionist congressional minority not doing what you and I all voted for in 2006 and 2008!”
There’s less of a cheer at this—more of a collective sigh. Yep, that’s the election. In no other state has the Democrats’ last-ditch argument—that shadowy, possibly foreign-influenced business interests are trying to buy the election—been as powerful a motivator as it has been in Wisconsin. This is a state that’s lost at least tens of thousands of jobs to outsourcing since the passage of NAFTA, jobs that are especially missed as the Great Recession has killed tens of thousands more. There is not much to be done about that right now. But it makes what President Obama and Sen. Feingold and the rest of the Democrats are saying even more outrageous.
“Citizens United is hurting us,” says Michael Turner, a Democratic activist running for sheriff in Eau Claire. “We’ve got loads and gobs of undisclosed money on issue ads. Because there’s no disclosure, there’s no reason to tell the truth. The incentive to be credible is completely gone. You can pay for a huge smear campaign and have nobody know where it came from.”
Of course, this isn’t why Feingold is stubbornly behind in the polls to Johnson, or why Democrats are in danger of losing three House seats, the governorship, and control of the state legislature. Democrats are in trouble in Wisconsin, first and foremost, because voters are not happy with the party’s efforts to combat the recession. And Democrats do get this.
“I guess [Obama] didn’t live up to my wildest dreams,” says Steph Regenauer, a student at the university who’s signed up to volunteer all weekend. “But that’s how it goes.” And Kristen Dexter, a freshman state representative who also addresses the crowd, admits that the health care bill that may cost Feingold his career “may not have happened the way we wanted, but it was a good start.” She says this, again, to a room of partisan Democrats.
At an event Monday, in the small north-central Wisconsin town of Rhinelander, I talked briefly with Feingold and posed this question. Was Johnson’s generic, kick-the-bums-out, stop-all-the-spending campaign working because voters didn’t think Democrats had delivered? When Johnson refused to get specific about how to create jobs, did that hit home because Democrats said the stimulus would create jobs and voters don’t think it did?
“It’s something you have to work hard on,” said Feingold. “The fact that 95 percent of the people, working families, got a tax cut is something that has not been adequately stressed. I’ve been stressing it all year. I think people are beginning to realize, though, as they see projects in their communities, the highway projects, the fact that we have a wonderful new senior center in Plymouth, a new wastewater-treatment plant here in Rhinelander—these things, people are now sort of admitting that it probably did a good job.”
If voters are benefiting, then why don’t they know it? “The rhetoric of the Republicans here is to pretend that it did absolutely nothing,” said Feingold. “I don’t think the issue is decisive—I think that in the end, people know we had to do it. It didn’t solve the whole problem. They’re looking for the belief that things will get better more quickly. The question is who is more likely to get that done.”
Feingold has an advantage that some endangered Democrats are lacking: He’s genuinely adored by his base. The idea that he could lose is not just shocking but also cosmically unfair. Eighteen years working on campaign finance reform and the Supreme Court unspools his legislation? A lifetime of public service that’s kept him poor, and he’s being out-man-of-the-peopled by a wealthy industrialist? It doesn’t matter that Democrats are actually withstanding the “secret money” onslaught with money of their own—it just doesn’t seem fair. In Rhinelander, a local activist named Kay Hoff, who stressed that she’s the winner of the “Eleanor Roosevelt award” for political activism, hoisted a sign that read, “I Don’t Want My Government Run Like a Plastics Factory.”
“Call me foolish,” says Rep. Ron Kind, who is in a dogfight to keep representing Eau Claire. “But I think it’s important that we still have one poor person serving in the Senate. If Johnson buys this election, he’d be the 72nd multimillionaire in the Senate.”
And that’s a huge part of the Feingold closing message: Johnson’s one of them. At his Eau Claire rally, Feingold says that Johnson’s “support for shipping Wisconsin jobs to other countries has been a gamechanger,” that every major state newspaper is endorsing Feingold because Johnson won’t talk about what he’d do if elected, and that voting against Feingold is handing a victory to the moneyed interests that are robbing them.
“He’s got over $2 million of those hidden ads, those Citizens United ads that we haven’t seen before,” says Feingold. “Chamber of Commerce, you know, runs these ads. They just bought $700,000 for the next five days. Nobody has any idea where the money’s coming from or who it is.”
A voice in the crowd growls “China!” It’s not clear whether Feingold can hear it, but he answers it anyway.
“We have a pretty good idea, don’t we? It’s the huge corporate interests that already dominate our government, and Mr. Johnson says that’s OK!”
If Feingold loses his seat, Wisconsin Democrats will know why. It was purchased at a discount. Voters were softened up by Fox News and talk radio and didn’t realize what the party was doing for them, that the economy was coming back. “We’re not good at tooting our own horns,” grumbles Dean Scanlon, a laborer making calls for the Democrats.
“Nobody’s real happy right now,” Feingold tells me, “but they’re sure not happy with the Republicans.” The trick for Democrats in Wisconsin—across the de-industrializing Midwest, really—is convincing voters that they can trace their problems to big money and free trade, and that they’ll be more unhappy with the Republicans than they are now with the Democrats.