Fight or Flight?

One frequent complaint from liberals, as the approaching midterm elections appear ever-more likely to sweep Republicans into power, is that Democratic incumbents are hurting their chances by seeking to distance themselves from President Obama and neglecting to campaign on their numerous achievements, most notably health care reform. If Democrats presented voters with a clearer choice, this argument goes, they'd be faring much better.

Liberal activists always think that candidates should be more liberal (likewise, conservative activists want their candidates to be more conservative). But their diagnosis of Democratic behavior is dead-on: most Democrats are running scared. The record of the current Congress is hardly absent from the campaign trail, but it is most often invoked in the form of a Republican attack.

An exception to this trend is Russ Feingold, the liberal three-term senator from Wisconsin who is locked in a tough reelection battle with his Republican opponent Ron Johnson, a businessman and political neophyte. Feingold has not only embraced Obama, but is running ads emphasizing his support for health care reform. Wisconsin split nearly evenly in the 2004 presidential election (John Kerry took it narrowly), went to Obama four years later, but has since trended Republican; it's become a quintessential "purple'' state. As such, Feingold's predicament and his strategy for confronting it are instructive for Democrats across the country.

In an election cycle where voters have punished establishment candidates in both parties, Feingold would seem to have a lot going for him. He was first elected to the Senate in 1992 as a reformer, and has remained truer to his ideals than most 18-year veterans of Washington. He opposed the Iraq War, cast the lone vote against the Patriot Act after the 9/11 attacks, and was the only Democrat to dissent from the recent financial-reform law, on the grounds that it wasn't tough enough on Wall Street. His signature legislative achievement is the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002, better known as the McCain-Feingold law (much of which was later struck down by the Supreme Court). For years, he was cast as the Senate's junior "maverick,'' Robin to John McCain's Batman.

Feingold managed this without alienating his own party, as McCain did, and still claims many powerful allies. Two weeks ago, President Obama -- who must have appreciated that someone is touting his accomplishments -- headlined a raucous rally of an estimated 26,000 people in Madison, the largest rally he has addressed since his election. The president implored voters, "Now is not the time to give up.'' The plea to support Feingold was unmistakable.

But, there's little evidence that this worked, at least not in the polls. Since mid-summer, when the race was tied, the trend line, a composite of polls, shows that Johnson has built a steadily growing lead that now stands at 9 points.

Feingold still has reason to hope. Recent polls show that liberals are becoming more invested in the midterm elections, which has narrowed the all-important "enthusiasm gap'' that had opened between eager Republicans and apathetic Democrats. The political climate remains punishing for incumbent Democrats, even more than Republicans. But if anyone were able to distinguish himself as standing apart from his party, Feingold, with his independent streak, would be the obvious bet to pull it off.

And yet, that doesn't appear to be happening. Feingold himself put his finger on the problem last week in an interview with Politics Daily, when he noted that voters appear to be punishing him not for his "independent'' votes, where he broke with members of his party, but for those, such as on health care and stimulus, where he stuck with them. These votes have become the focus of Republican attacks against him, turning the ordinary political dynamic on its head: instead of getting tarred as "outside the mainstream,'' he finds himself denounced as being all too comfortably within it.

More than anything, his plight suggests that this year's important dynamic isn't liberal versus conservative, but insider versus outsider -- and that all those Democrats running scared have good cause to do so.

Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.