Russ Feingold Is Back, But Has He Changed?

The Wisconsin Democrat hopes to return to the Senate, and he's promising to learn from the mistakes that cost him in 2010.

MILWAUKEE—For a moment last Friday, Russ Feingold tried to answer his skeptics rather than rally his base. Tucked away in a 30-minute speech brimming with fiery denunciations of the Patriot Act and overprivileged CEOs were two sentences that suggested the former senator was intent on confronting his new campaign's biggest challenge.

"Democrats, we are the party of the future, but only if we listen, and only if we act," he told several thousand Wisconsin Democrats gathered for the party's annual state convention, located in a ballroom at a glitzy downtown casino. "We don't win seats by fighting yesterday's battles."

Few candidates know better than Feingold about the need to adapt and move on from an old fight. Few expected Feingold would lose when the 2010 election cycle began, but he was caught off guard and eventually ousted by a political newcomer who successfully convinced voters that Feingold was part of a liberal Congress too eager to expand the size of government. In the aftermath, members of Feingold's team publicly criticized the effort, calling it stale and out of step with the senator's previously successful runs.

Now, Feingold is running to reclaim his seat in a rematch with Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, and his team is confident that a more favorable political environment and presidential-year turnout will push the race in his favor. But they're also vowing a fresh approach—both from the senator and the team around him—to assure Democrats that the mistakes of the last campaign won't be repeated.

It's an important development for the Democrats in a race the party likely must win to retake the Senate majority. And it's one Republicans are vowing to fight. They say they will make the next contest a rerun of the last race, believing a politician who has yet to recant his old agenda will have a tough time convincing voters they made a mistake when they threw him out of office the first time.

"If Senator Feingold does not admit he was wrong, then that means he thinks the voters were wrong," said Betsy Ankney, Johnson's campaign manager. "Telling Wisconsinites they were wrong is a surefire way to lose an election."

Feingold's first task might be proving that, unlike in previous years, he's not an insular candidate who has assembled an insular team around him. So he's set out from the get-go this time around to reach a much broader cross-section of his fellow Democrats. It's an impressive call list, according to his campaign: each of the chairs from Wisconsin's 72 local county committees, every member of the state House and Senate, and every Democratic U.S. senator.

Even longtime Democratic strategists in the state who had never spoken with the former senator before say they've received a call in recent months from a candidate suddenly eager to solicit advice.

"I've been surprised at the number of conversations he's had with people, donors and others who can help him get voters," said Patrick Guarasci, a Democratic strategist who has never worked for Feingold. "He's working. You can tell he's not taking things for granted, which is a great sign."

It's not the only change in Feingold's approach. Democrats expect that, unlike in 2010, he'll green-light independent expenditures from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to aid his effort. (Super PACs, which were conceived in the middle of Feingold's last election but not yet popular among Democrats, might also help.) And he's installed a new team around him to help, including new campaign manager Tom Russell, a veteran of former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's reelection campaign. Another newcomer, national Democratic pollster Fred Yang, will conduct the campaign's polls.

Not everything has run so smoothly for the Democrat. His spring campaign announcement took many by surprise, and it came while he was still teaching at Stanford University in California. Republicans have relentlessly highlighted how much time Feingold—who served as a special State Department envoy to the Great Lakes region of Africa until resigning earlier this year—has spent out of state since losing in 2010.

In their view, Feingold's outreach effort isn't a sign of changed candidate as much of a politician who has had to reacquaint himself in a state he has lost touch with. "I understand Feingold has name ID, but it's not like he's spent the last four years working the state," said Mark Graul, a Republican operative in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin has become one of the nation's most polarized states, one capable of letting Scott Walker win three elections in four years while also handing relatively easy victories to President Obama in both of his campaigns. But for all the inroads Republicans have made here, Democrats plainly think Johnson's 5-point victory five years ago was a fluke—the product of the year's heavy Republican bend and the Feingold campaign's slow-footed reaction to Johnson's late arrival in the race.

The differences between turnout in a midterm and presidential year alone could hoist Feingold to victory, in their telling. And even if things aren't that simple, at minimum, the campaign knows it will have plenty of ammunition against Johnson now that he's served four years in the Senate. Early polls suggest the Republican incumbent starts at a deficit—a mid-April poll from the Marquette University Law School said Feingold had the support of 54 percent of voters to Johnson's 38 percent.

"Whether Johnson likes it or not, voters are going to get a very clear comparison between the two candidates in this election," said Russell, Feingold's campaign manager. "We feel confident they'll side with Russ." (Through a spokesman, Feingold declined to be interviewed for this story.)

In the Senate, Feingold was known as an iconoclast; he was among the earliest and most vocal detractors of the Iraq war and was the upper chamber's lone vote against the original Patriot Act legislation. He was also a liberal's liberal, evincing a left-leaning populism now popularly associated with the party's Elizabeth Warren wing.

It was evident last weekend that Feingold doesn't plan on backing away from any of his old agenda. His keynote address to the state party was a 30-minute stem-winder focusing mostly on the need to recognize everyone's contribution to society and denouncing Republicans for looking past the value of working Americans. And he wasn't shy about a dive into the policy weeds: His speech even included a 300-word net-neutrality section about the importance of turning broadband Internet into a public utility.

Democrats say they aren't worried that Feingold hasn't retrofitted his approach; in fact, they think public opinion—on issues like inequality and mass surveillance—has moved closer to Feingold's own views since he last held office.

"We're living in the world that Russ Feingold predicted we would live in," said Tim Kaine, the senator from Virginia who spoke at the Wisconsin Democratic convention on Friday. (In a sign of how excited the party is about Feingold's return, the out-of-towner Kaine was asked to speak before the former senator delivered the event's keynote speech.)

But Republicans think the lack of change in Feingold's views will help them run the same campaign that worked against him in 2010—hitting him for votes in favor of the stimulus and Obamacare. And though Johnson is the incumbent, Republicans say they think voters will still see him as the political outsider when his record is compared to Feingold's 32-plus years of public service.

"To get reelected, Senator Feingold will have to tell the voters that his partisan votes on debt and spending and Obamacare were a mistake," Ankney said. "That's why he was fired in 2010—and he won't be rehired if he pretends those were the right votes to make."