ICYMI: Senator Feingold the Top Beneficiary of Progressives United?
Report reveals new ways Feingold used personal slush fund to set up his campaign – after claiming he intended to help other candidates and causes
In a report showing new links between Progressives United and the Feingold campaign, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Dan Bice writes this morning that no other candidate has benefited from Progressives United as much as Senator Feingold – even though he originally claimed he was launching it to help other candidates and causes.
“Progressives United was never about what Senator Feingold claimed – it was a slush fund he used to line his own pockets, pay staff in his shadow campaign, and secretly build a national fundraising apparatus he could exploit to claw his way back to regain power in Washington,” said Brian Reisinger, campaign spokesman for Ron Johnson. “This is further proof that Senator Feingold is a typical career politician, willing to mislead the public to win a fourth term.”
Today’s report linking Progressives United and the Feingold campaign follows news last year that Progressives United gave just 5 percent of its money to candidates and causes, and that Senator Feingold was breaking his pledge to rely on Wisconsin donors so he could tap the national donor network he’d built after voters fired him in 2010.
You can read the full report here, or below:
Top beneficiary of Progressives United might be Russ Feingold himself
The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
By Daniel Bice
April 27, 2016
Former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold set a specific goal when he set up Progressives United PAC shortly after losing his seat to Republican challengerRon Johnson in 2010.
Feingold, a Democrat, said he wanted the political action committee “to support candidates that will stand up to corporate influence and oppose those who blindly push the agenda of their corporate backers.”
Now the question is this: Has Feingold proved to be the primary beneficiary of that work by Progressives United PAC and its nonprofit arm, Progressives United Inc.?
It certainly appears so — whether that was the intent or not.
In important ways, Feingold’s campaign against Johnson has picked up on the successes of Progressives United Inc. and PAC, which spent a combined $10 million since 2011.
Feingold’s fundraising has far outpaced Johnson’s, and his campaign has experienced only the rare hiccup in the last 11 months. Feingold has led Johnson in every poll since the race began, with the most recent one showing him up 10 percentage points.
Consider these connections between his current campaign and Progressives United:
- Eight of his campaign aides came from Progressives United Inc. or PAC, including four who drew income from both. Feingold also was paid to serve as president of his Progressives United Inc. for a stint.
- Feingold’s campaign is relying on the same direct mail, telemarketing and online firms that were used by the two Progressives United entities.
So far, Feingold’s campaign has paid $1.9 million to the three firms: Nexus Direct, Trilogy Interactive and Integral Resources. The same three companies received $6.3million from Progressives United Inc. and PAC — representing nearly two-thirds of their total outlay.
- Feingold’s campaign bought the mailing list created by Progressives United PAC and has raised about $290,000 from individuals who donated to the PAC in 2014.
While this represents only a fraction of the Feingold campaign’s total $10.8 million income, it is also $60,000 more than the total amount given by Progressives United PAC directly to federal candidates in the last three election cycles.
None of this is illegal or even improper. But Johnson’s campaign suggested that it is hypocritical for Feingold, a champion of campaign finance reform, to benefit from his own PAC and nonprofit.
“Progressives United was never about what Senator Feingold claimed,” said Brian Reisinger, spokesman for Johnson. “It was a slush fund he used to line his own pockets, pay staff in his shadow campaign, and secretly build a national fundraising apparatus he could exploit to claw his way back to regain power in Washington.”
But Feingold’s campaign manager, Tom Russell, countered by pointing out that Johnson benefits from the work of three super PACs, including one run by his former chief strategist. Nearly all the individuals who gave to these super PACs also contributed to Johnson’s campaign.
“This just shows that Senator Johnson is happy to lob lame, baseless political attacks while reaping the benefits of a corporate-backed dark money system,” Russell said. “This is exactly the sort of tired, cynical political game that Wisconsinites have gotten sick of seeing out of Washington politicians.”
By contrast, Russell noted, only 93 of the itemized contributors to Feingold’s campaign had given to Progressives United PAC in 2014.
Their donations to Feingold come to only 5% of his campaign’s total donations during 2015. Russell said this “very small minority” of supporters also “backed Progressives United’s grass-roots work fighting big money in politics.”
Feingold lost his Senate seat in 2010 after 18 years. Not long after that, the Middleton Democrat set up Progressives United PAC and Inc. to help liberal candidates and others opposing “the exploding corporate influence” in politics.
If nothing else, the two groups kept Feingold and his aides in the political game.
The two organizations have come under criticism for pouring the bulk of their funds into raising money. Another sizable chunk went to pay salaries or consulting fees for Feingold, his top aide and eight former campaign and Senate staffers.
In all, Progressives United PAC gave only 5% of its funds, or $355,000, directly to federal candidates and political parties. Feingold’s team says it helped channel another $1.6million through ActBlue to liberals running for office.
Feingold’s aides have argued that Progressives United didn’t operate like a standard PAC and shouldn’t be compared to them. It was a member-driven group more focused on advocacy than direct campaign contributions.
Progressives United also focused on a narrow field of candidates, such as U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, and Tammy Baldwin, a first-term Democrat from Wisconsin.
It’s hard not to see some connections between the two Progressives United groups and Feingold’s current campaign.
Russell acknowledged that Feingold’s campaign team includes former employees of both Progressives United organizations, calling them “hardworking, honest and effective individuals.” This, he said, should be a surprise to no one.
“It is fortunate for us that many of those people have also joined the Russ for Wisconsin campaign,” Russell said.
These eight staffers represent a third of Feingold’s current team of 25 campaign workers, though most of the former Progressives United employees hold key positions in the campaign.
Likewise, Russell said it should not be a surprise that Feingold’s campaign is using some of the same firms as Progressives United.
At least eight Democratic U.S. senators and Senate candidates are using Trilogy, and Nexus has worked for many liberal individuals and groups, such as the Democratic Governors Association and Emily’s List.
“In the world of campaigns, some firms do excellent work, and some don’t,” Russell said. “We’re fortunate to work with several who have done excellent work for this campaign and many other progressive campaigns and organizations.”
Feingold’s campaign acknowledged that it bought Progressives United’s mailing list to hit up past donors of that group. The campaign, in fact, bought such lists from dozens of organizations.
Records show the Feingold campaign has seen an uptick every quarter in the number of donors who also gave to Progressives United in 2014. Overall, by Feingold’s account, those 93 individuals have given $288,476 to his campaign over the past year.
Of course, federal candidates aren’t required to list the names of people who give less than $200, and Feingold has bragged about his strong backing from small-dollar donors. Also, this analysis looks only at those who gave to Progressives United PAC in 2014, not in previous years.
Of the 93 people who gave to Feingold’s campaign and Progressives United, all but three have given to other liberal causes, with some of them donating to multiple groups.
For instance, just since 2010, liberal Milwaukee philanthropist Lynde Uihlein has donated nearly $2.5 million to federal candidates and PACs. Former Wisconsin Energy Chairman Richard Abdoo has given nearly $400,000 to a wide range of liberal groups and candidates since 2004.
But Reisinger, the Johnson spokesman, dismissed those numbers, saying it was hypocritical for Feingold to benefit at all from Progressives United entities.
“Senator Feingold still doesn’t get it — there’s no such thing as being just a little bit hypocritical,” Reisinger said. “These donors are only the beginning of his efforts to tap the Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth Warren wing of ultraliberal activists.”
Progressives United Inc. closed up shop when Feingold announced in May 2015 that he would run for a fourth term in the Senate.
Mike Wittenwyler, an attorney for Progressives United PAC, said nearly a year ago that the organization suspended fundraising to avoid the appearance of a conflict with Feingold’s run for the U.S. Senate.
During the two-year campaign cycle that began in January 2015, Progressives United PAC has raised $456,941 and spent $533,346, including $11,000 in donations to five candidates. The group, which still has more than $33,000 on hand, spends and raises less money each month.
“Our understanding is that Progressives United has been dormant and will remain so for the duration of the campaign,” said Russell, who did not work for the PAC. “It employs no staff, sends no emails and has no office.”