Madison, Wis. – Take a trip in a time machine, back to the magical land of 1992.
“Melrose Place” was near the top of the TV ratings, on pop radio, Sir Mix A-Lot let us know that “Baby Got Back,” and, for reasons not entirely clear, young people began wearing their clothes backward.
And in 1992, first-time U.S. Senate candidate Russ Feingold, the “underdog” state senator from Middleton, Wis., was making quaint campaign commercials – documentary style.
Feingold made some big promises back then, like, “I will rely on Wisconsin citizens, not out-of-staters for this campaign.” He even wrote it on the garage door of his “middle-class” Middleton home.
Like Feingold’s promises, times have changed.
Twenty-four years later, Feingold is running again for the U.S. Senate seat he held until 2010, when Republican businessman Ron Johnson beat the old “underdog.”
And those old pledges from the guy whose name is on the sweeping overhaul of campaign finance reform are no longer in play.
As Politifact and many others have pointed out, six weeks after the former senator kicked off his campaign in May 2015, he had $2.3 million in his war chest.
National Journal in August reported that the majority of Feingold’s campaign cash had come from out-of-state contributors.
Why the change? Feingold said the rules had changed and he had to change with them, even as he continued to campaign against all of that icky money in politics.
“Every single election is different based on the reality of the campaign finance law at the time,” he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in August. “What I did in the past is to offer a pledge or a series of proposals for a six-year term.”
What he did in 2010, when he ran against Johnson the first time in a bid for a fourth term, was tell the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the big money outside spenders, not to spend money in Wisconsin. He once told the group to “get the hell out” of his state.
Today, Feingold is rolling out the welcome mat for the DSCC, accepting endorsements, fundraising support – and money.
Democrats counter that Johnson has refused to sign Feingold’s so-called “Badger Pledge” that would keep super PACs out of the race, even as Feingold’s own Progressives United PAC has been under fire for its fundraising and spending, dubbed a political “slush fund” by critics.
Left-leaning groups have hit the airwaves attacking Johnson on everything from the senator’s position on the environment to his office’s handling of complaints at the troubled Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Feingold has remained silent on their involvement.
There are at least six liberal interest groups engaged in the battle to return Feingold to the Senate. The stakes are high. As Feingold’s friends at the DSCC noted in a fundraising appeal, “If we pick up just four seats, we take back the majority. Some really incredible Democrats are already stepping up to run,” the letter states. “In Wisconsin, former Senator Russ Feingold — a strong and steadfast voice for the values we share — is running to return to the Senate in 2016.”
From the WABAC Machine of a bygone time, one of those quaint Feingold campaign ads in 1992 insisted that, “Wisconsin can’t afford anything less than Russ Feingold.”
In a statement, the Republican Party of Wisconsin countered: “Wisconsin cannot afford to send a politician’s politician to Washington, D.C. Feingold has been transformed and epitomizes everything he claimed he stood against.”