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The Post-Mortem Feingold Fans Dreaded Has Arrived

Via the Rothenberg Political Report’s Nathan L. Gonzales, writing in Roll Call.

Given its author and location, this will be priority reading for most of political Washington by lunch tomorrow.

The highlights:

The Redefinition of Russ

“As long as he held on to his independent moniker, he was pretty much unbeatable,” Johnson’s pollster, Wes Anderson, told Roll Call. “If we don’t explore that, we don’t win.”

Through early focus groups, the Johnson campaign believed there was a crack in Feingold’s independent armor. It “zoned in” on two key elements of Feingold’s strength: “fiscally responsible and independent maverick.” It tried to peel away the independent label and claim it for Johnson.

“We zoned in on those two things and had the ammunition from the last two years with Obama,” said Johnson’s media consultant, Curt Anderson, Wes Anderson’s brother, who worked at the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 1992 when Feingold defeated Kasten.

Curt Anderson said the Johnson team believed Feingold’s independence was based on some “inconsequential votes.”

Feingold told voters on the campaign trail he’d opposed bank bailouts under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He may be best known as the single dissenting vote against the USA PATRIOT Act.

But in an election in which voters were most concerned about the economy, Republicans focused on Feingold’s votes for the $787 billion economic stimulus bill, health care reform and Obama’s budget.

Democrats admit that instead of rewriting history and distorting Feingold’s record, Republicans were able to focus on what they believe he is now. By the end of the race, Feingold’s greatest strength was sapped.

Going National Hurt He Who Knew “Wisconsin Like the Back of His Hand”

Some Democrats in the state said the Senator’s national reputation — and his brief flirtation with a 2008 presidential bid — may have exceeded his connection to the Badger State.

“He thought visiting 72 counties every two years would be enough to insulate him from the environment,” a Democratic source said.

In general, multiple Democratic observers in the state said, Feingold overestimated himself and underestimated Johnson.

“Quite frankly, Russ was a little arrogant,” a second Badger State Democrat said.

Feingold arrogant?  Say it ain’t so!

The Collapse of the Ads

“The decision-making process was far different,” Feingold’s longtime media consultant, Steve Eichenbaum, told Roll Call in a recent interview. Contrary to the past three races, the Milwaukee-based media consultant found himself taking orders rather than having creative input.

“They weren’t our ideas,” Eichenbaum explained about the ads that made the airwaves. “We were more of a production company.”

So who was the director?

Russ Feingold runs Feingold’s campaigns,” according to one Democratic insider. “He micromanages his races in a maddening way.”

Until now, it hadn’t been much of a problem.

Russ Feingold has always been a good judge. His instincts were infallible up to this point,” Eichenbaum said. “Russ just believed he couldn’t do what he did in the past and have it work.”

Feingold declined to be interviewed for this report.

Even though Eichenbaum disagreed with the direction of the campaign, he still has “nothing but the highest respect” for Feingold, and he’s not sure that his discarded ideas would have changed the outcome.

The Strength of Ron Johnson’s Ads

What’s most remarkable about the Johnson campaign is that no one can seem to agree which ad was the Republican’s best.

“Apple Pie” and “Family” have received some recognition because the bio spots mocked typical campaign ads for their over-the-top wholesomeness. But “57” may go down as Johnson’s signature ad of the cycle.

The spot featured Johnson and a white board pointing out the number of lawyers in the Senate (57) compared with the number of manufacturers (zero) and accountants (one). Feingold is a lawyer; Johnson is both a manufacturer and an accountant.

“It simplified the race for a lot of people,” according to Mark Graul, a former adviser to then-Rep. Mark Green (R).

The candidates spent well over $10 million each in what will go down as the most expensive Senate race in Wisconsin history, with Feingold asking the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to stay out of the race.

My personal fave of our ads was also “57.”

I was the one who had to go through all the official bios (and then some) of all the United States Senators to double-check the facts of the ad — not an easy task since the 111th Congress has seen it share of deaths and membership changes in the Senate — it was nice to see all that reading and hard work pay off in the fashion the ad team and the rest of the campaign wanted.

The Loss of the Wisconsin Independent Voter

Not only did Feingold struggle to maintain his independent image, he struggled with independent voters.

In 2008, Obama won independents in Wisconsin 58 percent to 39 percent and won the state by more than a dozen points. This year, Feingold lost independents
56 percent to 43 percent and lost the race by 5 points.

“Johnson’s message of a career politician, big government spending, too many taxes and too much spending resonated with these independent voters,” said Madison-based lobbyist Scott Tyre, who worked for former Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.).

Feingold’s struggle with independent voters mirrored Democratic problems nationwide, and a closer look at this year’s elections in Wisconsin begs the question of whether this race had anything to do with the Senator.

Not only did Feingold lose re-election, but Republicans captured the governorship for the first time in eight years and took over both chambers of the Legislature in a state where residents can vote a straight party ticket, a process allowed in fewer than 20 states.

A county-by-county analysis revealed that even though Johnson and GOP gubernatorial nominee Scott Walker had very different résumés and ran distinct campaigns, their percentages of the vote were nearly the same. The two Republicans ran within 2 points of each other in 67 counties and only 3 points apart in the remaining five.

Of the few Democrats who have talked to me freely since Election Day, many of them off the record have told me the same thing: “The Feingold Camp didn’t think they were losing until early October…and their campaign tactics reflected it.”

Out in DC last week, I had more than a few conversations with friends and a few web journalists (Off-the-record in those cases) who covered the race on the road with the Feingold campaign.  Many of them told me they were amazed at how Democrats in Wisconsin were unwilling to accept the bad environment in front of them [Slate’s Dave Weigel personally told me out-going State Senator Pat Kreitlow (D-Chippewa Falls) told him he was going to win his race.  On Election night, Kreitlow lost to Terry Moulton 54% to 46%.].

Gonzales pretty much nails what many of us on the Johnson campaign felt during the race.  Now it’s just interesting, and a bit reassuring, to read them be confirmed a month after Election Day.

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  • Jim

    Disappointed the Roll Call article still has Feingold visiting all 72 counties every two years, when it was really every year, for 18 years. Correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t believe Johnson made it to all 72 counties throughout his entire campaign. I’m also disappointed to see a celebration of Johnson’s victory via 30 second TV commercials and staying away from the media.
    No sour grapes, a win is a win, and now in the Senate WI has one vote for the R’s.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, and like raising the majority of funds from Wisconsinites Feingold’s
    72 county pledge was a stunt. There’s a major difference between being
    there and actually listening to those who aren’t your sycophants.

    And no sour grapes…yeah, that’s funny. Needed a good laugh.

  • Jim

    Because Feingold didn’t do everything he heard from everyone at listening sessions, he wasn’t listening…good one.
    I can’t wait to talk to Johnson when he comes to Jackson County in 2011…also a good one! We’ll be lucky if we see him when he runs for career-politician in 2016.