Struggling in Wisconsin, ‘maverick’ Russ Feingold cozies up to Obama

Dubbed by some as the ‘least loyal’ of all Senate Democrats and trailing in the polls, Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold is in a tricky spot as he tries to appeal to the Democratic base.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer The Christian Science Monitor

posted October 22, 2010 at 3:49 pm EDT

Chicago —  Locked in a tight race to hold onto his seat in the US Senate, Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold (D) is often criticized by opponents as too closely allied with President Obama. He voted for the president’s health-care reform bill and last year’s federal stimulus package, both of which Republicans say represent reckless spending and ineffective policy.

So when Mr. Obama appeared at a Labor Day rally in Milwaukee and Senator Feingold was nowhere in sight, many interpreted it as Feingold’s hesitation to be associated with the president or the growing anger against his policies.

Things have changed.

In late September, Feingold defied expectations by appearing at a rally in Madison where Obama was scheduled to speak to more than 25,000 college students. Earlier that afternoon, he tweeted he was “proud to join President Obama” at the rally. Feingold had previously called assumptions to the contrary “a lie.”

To Barry Burden, who teaches political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Feingold’s arrival at the Obama rally was a “shocker.” It changed public perception that Feingold was shunning the president’s overtures for help.

Why the turn-around? Feingold needs help. Most polls show that in the final weeks of the campaign, he trails Ron Johnson, an Oshkosh businessman with tea party leanings., which aggregates national and local polls, shows Mr. Johnson at 52.3 percent and Feingold at 45.1.

Last week Feingold joined Michelle Obama at a luncheon fundraiser in Milwaukee, where he made it clear he was proud of his vote on health-care reform. He said he was “honored to have voted for President Obama’s courageous action to bring health care after 70 years of waiting.”

Maverick no more?

The direct overtures are unusual for Feingold, who for three terms has cultivated a maverick image. Wisconsin voters have a history of supporting public officials who do not necessarily follow the Washington agenda line by line. Feingold provided the sole vote against the USA Patriot Act in 2001, and he was one of the few senators who voted against invading Iraq. Since Obama has taken office, Feingold’s views on gun control have sided more with Republicans, and he was one of the few Democrats who voted against confirming Timothy Geithner as US Treasury secretary.

Mr. Burden calls Feingold “the least loyal of the Democrats in the Senate,” which in this current race puts him in a tricky spot. “His maverick reputation helps him with some voters and hurts him with others,” Burden says. “You can say, ‘I’m not working in lock-step with the Democratic Party,’ but on the other hand, that’s not a good message when you’re trying to crank out the Democratic base to vote. He’s stuck in a funny place.”

The Republican opposition is taking aim at Feingold’s growing interest in sharing the stage with A-list Democrats in the last throes of the race.

Wisconsin GOP chairman Reince Priebus told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel last week that Feingold’s appearance alongside Michelle Obama “probably isn’t the best tactic for a candidate trying to prove that he hasn’t ‘gone Washington’ over the last 18 years.”

Burden says recent visits by the Obamas, as well as a visit in Milwaukee last week by Vice President Joe Biden, are as much efforts to stimulate early voting as they are to endorse local candidates from their party. Wisconsin Democrats “are not enthusiastic at the moment,” which makes party leaders worried many of them will stay home and not vote, he says.

Early voting increases

The battle for early voter turnout is a national trend. According to research published by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press this week, 27 percent of voters nationwide have already voted early or plan to do so before Election Day. That is an increase from the 18 percent who gave a similar response during the 2006 midterm election season.

Those favoring early voting are not affiliated more or less with a particular party, as respondents are split 28 percent to 29 percent between Democrats and Republicans, respectively. That makes state parties nervous when their candidate is behind in the polls.

“Like many people, [Democratic voters in Wisconsin] are concerned the economy hasn’t turned around faster. These efforts to bring the president in and encourage early voting is a way to remind people that there is a lot at stake,” Burden says.

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