02/08/2012 09:23 pm ET Updated Apr 09, 2012

Progressive Wisconsin Democrats Resist The Super PAC Route

Russ Feingold raised hackles when he criticized President Obama's reversal on raising money through a Super PAC.

"I think people will see it as phony that Democrats start playing by Republican rules," the former Democratic Senator from Wisconsin told Sam Stein of The HuffingtonPost:

"People will see us as weak and not being a true alternative and just being the same as the other guy. And as I have said before, to me this is dancing with the devil."

Feingold is a "loser," progressive commentator Ed Schulz shot back on his radio show. Having lost his Senate seat in 2010, Schultz added, Feingold is now just a "heckler from the stands."

"This is about winning," Schultz said. "If you don't have the money, you can't win."

Plenty of other Democrats echo this refrain: it makes no sense to "unilaterally disarm."

"We're not going to fight this fight with one hand tied behind our back," Jim Messina, the Obama re-election campaign manager, told The New York Times.

That's why the President is dispatching his campaign staff and advisers to raise money from big donors for Priorities USA Action, the Democratic super PAC.

Thanks to the Supreme Court, outside groups are raising unlimited donations through the super PACs this year, which spend them mainly on television attack ads. The President said in 2008 that he didn't want independent money spent by outside groups, and criticized the corrosive effect of all that unregulated money on politics.

But not this year.

Citing a fundraising disadvantage with the Republican super PACs, Messina warned donors "we may have no spending advantage (as we did in 2008) and could in fact get outspent."

Does getting outspent mean defeat?

Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks campaign cash, doesn't think so.

"Of course you can win while getting outspent. It happens all the time," he says. "The most important thing is the quality of the candidate and how well that candidate connects with the voters."

In Russ Feingold's home state of Wisconsin, a group of progressive activists are calling on whichever Democratic candidate emerges to run against Governor Scott Walker to eschew big money in the recall race. Walker has raised a record-breaking $12 million this year, racking up $4.5 million in just one week -- mostly from a handful of big donors from outside the state.

Back in 2010, President Obama himself said,"You can't stand by and let the special interests drown out the voices of the American people."

The shadowy groups behind issue ads have their own nefarious goals, the President explained:

"It could be the oil industry, it could be the insurance industry, it could even be foreign-owned corporations. You don't know because they don't have to disclose. Now that's not just a threat to Democrats, that's a threat to our democracy."

But the greater threat, Obama and his supporters have decided, is saying no to all that cash.

There is another way.

At the People's Legislature last week, McCabe floated the idea of a low-budget, grassroots recall campaign that would rely on the same 30,000 citizens who gathered more than a million signatures to recall Walker.

People could hold up handmade signs on highways, throw house parties, conduct an intensive door-to-door campaign, and use Walker's big fundraising advantage against him.

Only a candidate who didn't take massive out-of-state cash could make the claim that he or she was sticking up for democracy, the thinking went.

McCabe (and Russ Feingold) frequently invoke progressive Wisconsin Senator Bill Proxmire, who ran on a shoestring, spending less than $300 on each statewide race, and traveling around the state to meet voters face to face.

As for Feingold being a "loser," it wasn't trying to run a clean campaign that cost him his seat, McCabe said, but the tidal wave that washed away sitting Democrats as part of the nationwide backlash against Obama. That, and an ad campaign that "didn't do him justice," being more negative and defensive than in years past.

This year, McCabe said, a candidate could run a terrific positive, Proxmire-style campaign with a twist:

"He did it alone. To run today and win, you couldn't run alone. But you wouldn't have to. There's this army waiting for a candidate willing to run a true grassroots campaign."

Wisconsin has long prided itself on being a laboratory of democracy. Perhaps, this year, the state will lead the way on campaign cash.

Too bad Russ Feingold isn't ready to get out in front on this issue, and show Obama how it can be done.