WASHINGTON -- The abrupt announcement by Senator Herb Kohl that he will retire at the end of this term has left a void in the Democratic Party -- and provoked potentially divisive questions over how to fill it.
Russ Feingold, the object of admiration for the grassroots community but a bête noir for many in the official party apparatus, stands at the heart of the matter. The former senator was completely surprised by Kohl's announcement, those close to him say, and, as of Friday, is more likely to sit out another run at congressional office than throw his hat immediately back in the ring after his lost in 2010.
But even before Feingold makes a decision, an informal pull and push was being applied towards a prospective candidacy.
Soon after Kohl's announcement, the progressive advocacy group Democracy for America launched a petition campaign urging Feingold to run for office. But, at the same time, national Democrats were subtly pushing the idea that other candidates would stand a better chance at winning. One party official floated the names of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Reps. Tammy Baldwin and Ron Kind as alternatives. An adviser to Baldwin, who could potentially draw some progressive support away from Feingold, quickly suggested she would run. Another top operative, asked about the field, emailed with the simple prediction: “I think new blood wins [this race].”
This is the common dynamic when it comes to Feingold, a senator who has built a reputation and structured a lengthy political career on being an outsider, even within his own party.
In his 1998 campaign, he publicly told the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee not to spend money on his race -- wary that it would tarnish his anti-outside-money message. When the committee continued to come to his aid, he called up its chair, Sen. Bob Kerrey, and told him to pull the plug. Kerrey did. Whether that hurt or helped remains a subject of debate. But the election win was razor thin, with Feingold pulling out a 50.5 to 48.4 percentage point victory.
And yet, during his ill-fated attempt to hold office in 2010, Feingold was trumpeting that meme yet again. Despite enjoying a close relationship with several lawmakers, including Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), he closed the campaign with a commercial that showed him eating alone in the Senate; no colleague willing to dine alongside.
“It was supposed to reflect how independent he was, but it also underscored the testy relations he has with D.C.,” said Charles Franklin, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
For many cycles, the party was more than willing to live with this friction. But 2010 ended in defeat. And with Democrats hoping to hold on to an already slim majority in the Senate, the normally obvious move -- convincing a lawmaker who has won statewide and retains a high favorability rating to run again -- is no longer such a given.
Part of the concern is that Feingold’s message may no longer resonate. Banging the drums against the insidious influence of money in politics is tough when your own party is fully invested in the money-raising game.
“The strong message he had in ‘92, ‘98 and even 2004 on campaign finance reform … really was not an issue this time around,” said Franklin. “He couldn’t even campaign on it in 2010.”
Message, in the end, is changeable. What’s not is Feingold’s longstanding opposition to non-government groups meddling in political campaigns. Operatives with these organizations cannot, by law, coordinate with candidates. But there is already a clear sense that Wisconsin will be a vicious battleground in the 2012 elections as a top flight Senate race overlapping with a presidential swing state and non-government groups will be present. Feingold’s presence on the ticket could produce its fair share of awkward optics and uncomfortable questions.
“I don’t have any big policy difference with him,” said one Democratic operative at a politically active non-government group. But with respect to what we are doing, “he’s just holier than thou.”
Feingold, in an interview several weeks ago with The Huffington Post, dismissed the underlying logic behind such thinking. “If we play the unlimited money game, they’ll win,” he said. “If we draw a contrast, saying that we, in fact, are opposing this kind of domination of the political process, I think we have the ability to overcome it.” And, indeed, the former Senator has shown a remarkable capacity to raise funds even outside of elected office.
As for discouragement from the national party, that won’t be a deterrence either. It certainly won’t compel him to change his ways.
“If the consultants in D.C. are looking for a get-along corporate candidate they are not going to want Russ,” said one source close to the former Senator.