Thursday, November 4, 2010

How Russ lost

Originally posted at

Democratic incumbent Sen. Russ Feingold lost his bid to convince voters that he deserved another six-year term serving the state of Wisconsin. In his place come January will be a pro-corporate, anti-government conservative who has no political experience whatsoever in his lifetime.

How did this happen? Many of us are asking that question, some of us out loud to family and friends. Feingold was a champion of progressive causes, but also a staunch defender of the U.S. Constitution, so much so that his defense of gun rights went further than what Ron Johnson ever articulated during the campaign. Much of what led to his loss, however, transcended what people thought about Feingold himself and involved the national outlook, disregarding what candidate Johnson would provide for the state and focusing entirely on misidentifying factors in Feingold's career as Senator.

There are four main reasons as to why Feingold may have lost this race. First, Johnson represented a fresh face to Wisconsin citizens whereas Feingold was considered a part of the "Washington establishment." No matter how wrong that assessment was, the fact that Feingold had been in DC for nearly two decades didn't help his image as a true independent voice within the Senate chambers. Johnson, on the other hand, was a relatively unknown candidate, entering the race considerably late in May of this year. The people of Wisconsin never got to really know who Ron Johnson was (including the fact that Johnson opposed extending rights to victims of sexual abuse in the state).

Which brings us to the second reason why Feingold lost: he had to defend policy positions while Johnson was able to get away with saying little-to-nothing on what he'd do as Senator, outside of simple ideological beliefs he'd espouse. Feingold was proud of the many votes he cast, including for health care reform and against the big government bailout to banks and Wall Street. But few people took note of the latter, lumping Feingold in with the rest of the Democratic Party who mostly voted for the measure. With health reform, Feingold's vote made sense to those who would listen to him speak, but many Wisconsinites had already heard all they wanted to about the issue, and therefore despised Feingold for his pro-"Obamacare" vote (oftentimes lacking correct information on the subject in the process).

Needing to explain yourself in politics is never a good sign -- it places you in constant defense mode, making it difficult to get your message above the framing that others have placed you in. In other words, if your stances aren't "common sense" enough to stand on their own, you'll fail to convince the people to pick you instead of your opponent.

Feingold's stances were legit and reasonable, but became difficult to defend when framed in the context of the national discourse. Imagine having a great defense in soccer, but never being able to kick the ball beyond midfield. Even if the game ends in a 0-0 tie, soccer analysts will agree that your team was vastly outplayed. Johnson never scored any "goals" with anything he said, but the Feingold campaign didn't come close in their reasonable discourse to explain the Senator's positions versus Johnson's characterization of Feingold as just another "Washington liberal."

A third reason why Feingold lost is the all-important "money game." With Feingold being the number-one enemy of special interest groups in Washington, he became the biggest target for many to defeat on the left within the Senate. With those outside groups spending large sums of money, as well as Johnson himself spending more than $8 million of his own cash, the people of Wisconsin were barraged with anti-Feingold ads for the better part of the campaign. Before even the final two months of the campaign, Johnson outspent Feingold by nearly three-to-one. It topped that margin by election day.

Finally, Feingold's loss was due largely to voter fatigue, as some outlets have pointed out. People who were uninspired to vote stayed home, people who were annoyed by campaign ads ignored them, disregarding the importance of this race, and some people just flat-out refused to vote because of how crazy politics have been lately. A lot of those voters were first-time voters in 2008, who had supported the "Change" Obama and Dems had stood for but were disenchanted by the outcomes over the past two years.

It's important to note that beyond the main reasons why Russ Feingold lost his Senate seat, none of them include his being an ineffective leader. Quite the contrary: the reason Feingold even got close to Johnson in the closing weeks of the campaign was probably because of his stances, because of his ability to stake out progressive beliefs, keeping Wisconsin's interests in mind. Russ's liberal streak isn't to blame here -- he's been just as liberal in the past with no problems. The perfect combination of voter frustration, voter apathy, and misidentifying/purposeful negative framing of Feingold as "just another Democrat" beat him, not any new conservative ideals espoused by Ron Johnson. Despite the loss, we that to keep in mind that the people themselves aren't shifting more to the right, but rather those in the middle failed to understand who the real Russ Feingold was.


Still, it's disheartening to see such an important figure in our state's political history go down like this. It's a hard pill to chew, and though we may have learned more lessons through his loss on how to better defend our state against radical right campaigns, it's terrible that Wisconsin and the nation-at-large had to lose such a courageous legislator in the process.

Don't rule Feingold out of making a political return -- he will remain dedicated to pushing our state forward no matter what his future brings. And don't let his loss ruin your motivation to keep fighting on yourself. That is the worst thing of all to take from this election. Besides, Russ wouldn't want you to do that -- he'd want you to stay involved, to tackle the next big battle that we will face in the coming years. Wisconsin is red, for now. But with people like Russ leading the way, and with 100 Russ Feingolds right behind him, there's no telling what the people in our state could do, what great things Wisconsin can accomplish.

Forward. Always Forward.


  1. Russ didn't lose this and Johnson didn't win it. Obama lost it the same way Bush did: poor leadership.

    Jack Lohman ...

  2. With a zillion dollars spent by unions, Feingold outspent Johnson by a considerable amount. That may have been the biggest problem. Most Americans hate unions and their ads were serious personal attack ads with no foundation and in fact many were complete lies. You can fool the people some of the time but not all the time. He also voted with Pelosi 92% of the time. Not hardly a maveric.

  3. Unions outspent the money that supported Ron Johnson? Preposterous! Take a look here and tell me what outside money bought the campaign.