Voters say they're tired of the Establishment, and Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold has been the ultimate anti-Establishment politician, a prickly outsider in the clubby Senate. Voters say they're tired of partisanship, and Feingold has been a rare independent voice, bucking his party on everything from President Clinton's impeachment trial to President Obama's financial reforms. Voters say they're tired of pork and perks and bailouts and big-money special interests; Feingold was fighting them all before it was trendy. But voters might be tired of Feingold too.
Throughout the fall, the outspoken (some say shrill) and iconoclastic (some say sanctimonious) Rhodes scholar has been trailing Republican plastics manufacturer Ron Johnson in the polls. Johnson is running a generic 2010 GOP campaign, attacking Feingold as a big spender while refusing to say where he'd cut spending. Election guru Nate Silver gives Johnson an 87.6% chance of victory.
Then again, Feingold has always thrived as a scrappy underdog. In his first Senate race, in 1992, he thrashed two better-known, better-funded rivals in a primary, then upset a Republican incumbent. In 1998 he looked like a one-termer after he refused to let the Democratic Party respond to Republican-funded attack ads, but he was re-elected anyway. His has often been a lonely voice: the only vote against the Patriot Act, the lead sponsor of a resolution to censure President George W. Bush for secret wiretapping and the scourge of the Army Corps of Engineers and its water projects.
Feingold is a purist surrounded by dealmakers, and his stands haven't won him a lot of friends in his party. He voted to confirm Bush nominees like John Roberts and John Ashcroft; he opposed Obama's Wall Street reforms from the left, which forced Democratic leaders to water them down even further to secure an extra Republican vote. His politics-is-dirty crusade for campaign-finance reform didn't endear him to his peers either. And he's still refusing aid from the party, which strikes its leaders as both offensive (what's wrong with our money?) and stupid (do you want to lose?).
But in Johnson's ads and a flood of independently financed attacks that predictably skirted the McCain-Feingold law Feingold is cast as a standard-issue Democrat, a reliable Big Government vote for Obamacare and the stimulus, a typical Washington insider. That's politics. The D after his name has never dictated his behavior, but in 2010 it might end his career.