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The Last Time It Worked: A Story of Working Across the Aisle

By Tess Orrick     Chapter 4: “Most Democrats thought Russ was a lost cause”   This episode takes place midway through the book....

By Tess Orrick

 

 

Chapter 4: “Most Democrats thought Russ was a lost cause”

 

This episode takes place midway through the book.

The beginning of the book introduces the two main protagonists, Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) and Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin). McCain is a revered Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war, yet is notorious in Washington for his fiery temper and his ability to hold a grudge. Feingold is a principled, progressive liberal who was the underdog when he was elected in 1992 and came to Washington with an 82-point plan of how to reduce the federal deficit. Democrats were beginning to learn about a new and dark reality after the 1994 midterms in which Republicans gained control of both the House and Senate. McCain and Feingold began working for ethics reform on earmarking and pork barrel spending and had made their first attempt at introducing comprehensive campaign finance reform legislation in 1995.

Prior to this story, the scandal of Bill Clinton’s campaign finances in his 1996 reelection and the president’s affair with Monica Lewinsky emerged. Feingold and McCain are up for reelection in 1998, and that is where we join the narrative, as pressure is mounting on both, senators.

 

 

Russ Feingold had always hated anyone talking on his behalf, which made life tough for anyone who agreed to be his press secretary. But if he was going to have someone be his voice in his reelection campaign, he wanted it to be his former press secretary Mike Wittenwyler.

Feingold had a target on his back and the Republican Party was prepared to spend whatever it took to oust the leading Democratic opponent of soft money.[1] Incumbents are meant to have all the advantages in an election. Fundraising for the next campaign begins early in a member’s term in office. In 1996 senators raised $16,000 a week, a 32 percent increase from 1992.[2]

The preference as an incumbent is to raise money early but to start the campaign as late as possible. The Republicans weren’t giving Feingold the luxury of waiting. Feingold was facing strong opposition in two-term Congressman Mark Neumann – who made an early start by announcing his intention of running for the Senate not long after the 1996 election. This was going to be a tough campaign and he needed someone he trusted to spearhead it. Mike Wittenwyler was in his final year at the University of Wisconsin Law School when Feingold approached him about running the campaign.

While Feingold was back in Wisconsin the two went out for breakfast, which they had been doing on an occasional basis since Wittenwyler had left his office. Wittenwyler had one question: Was Feingold sure he was the right person?

“My politics are much more libertarian and centrist. I am definitely not a democrat with a big D,” Wittenwyler said years later in an interview, remembering that meeting. “He and I didn’t agree on everything, but he was adamant that it wasn’t a problem.”[3] It was a relationship built on trust and respect that meant more to both than being completely ideologically aligned.

Wittenwyler got a very early start in politics. During the 1980 presidential campaign, at age nine, he spent an afternoon circulating petitions, collecting what he estimated was a couple of hundred signatures, to get John Anderson’s name on the ballot. Anderson, a Republican from Illinois, entered the presidential primaries with a proposal to raise the gas tax while also cutting social security taxes. When Wittenwyler went to turn in his petitions at the campaign field office he was told they were all invalid because he wasn’t 18 years old. “It was quite a learning experience,” he later said. “My afternoon standing outside a grocery store getting signatures. Only to be told, sorry, tough luck.”[4]

Twelve years after that, as a college student, he joined Feingold’s first campaign for Senate as an intern. He was promoted to press secretary after Feingold won. The young political science major dropped out of college to follow Feingold to Washington, reasoning with his parents that he had been going to school to get a job, but now he had the job of a lifetime.[5] After a few years working in Feingold’s Washington office, Wittenwyler returned to Wisconsin to finish college. He managed to get most of the way through law school before Feingold called him back to politics – and somehow to finish during the 1998 campaign.

As the campaign geared up, most people thought Feingold would lose. Years later McCain would write in his memoir how depressed he was at the prospect. “Most Democrats thought Russ was a lost cause,” he wrote. “So did everyone else. So did I, for that matter.” McCain – who ran on the same election cycle as Feingold – faced an inexperienced and underfunded opponent in challenger Ed Ranger. His reelection was never in doubt.

Feingold knew he wouldn’t be able to depend this time on getting the same level of support on the campaign trail that he had from the party’s presidential candidate six years earlier. While the impeachment trial hadn’t yet reached the Senate, it was known in the Democratic caucus that Feingold wasn’t assumed to be voting along party lines.

In February 1998, nine months before election day, Feingold announced “ten promises” that would guide his reelection campaign. Most notably, he placed a spending limit on the campaign of $1 per voter, or roughly $3.8 million. This came as a surprise to Wittenwyler, who had been working from an original campaign budget of around $8 million. Almost overnight the budget had to be drastically reduced. Most days Wittenwyler and other campaign staffers gathered around the dining room table of a college economics professor who was helping with the budget. Wittenwyler said he felt like a broken record, asking, “What can we cut today?”[6]

Neumann, thinking he could outmaneuver Feingold at his own game, had proposed similar cuts just weeks earlier. His plan backfired. An editorial in the Appleton Post-Crescent said, “Let’s be clear about what happened here. Neumann called Feingold’s bluff and shouldn’t have. Neumann clearly didn’t think Feingold would readily agree to campaign spending curbs in the defense of his Senate seat.”[7] The race became the only statewide campaign in the country to adopt campaign finance limits. Both candidates agreed to limit donations from political action groups to 10 percent of the totally campaign funds, to raise no more than 25 percent of their money from out-of-state sources and to place a $2,000 cap on the personal contribution a candidate could make to his own campaign.[8] This reflected the principles Feingold was fighting for in Washington, but Neumann didn’t share those principles and would find ways around the limits.

That same month Feingold was making changes to his team in Washington. Robert Schiff came on board as Feingold’s chief counsel. Previously a staff attorney on campaign finance matters for the advocacy group Public Citizen, Schiff had made a career out of trying to achieve campaign finance reform. He was the person who knew the most about the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill and became the point person, not just for Feingold but for McCain also. “During that brief moment I was the expert,” said Schiff. “The details of any bill can be complicated and campaign finance reform particularly. People would turn to me, and Russ would too, and say ‘What does this mean? What are the implications?’”[9]

After years of trying to achieve reform, not just on campaign finance but on earmarking, congressional gifts and pork-barrel spending, McCain and Feingold hadn’t curried much political favor with members of their own parties. As McCain put it years later, opponents of reform believed that “no one… will ever lose an election because they opposed campaign finance reform, so why risk losing by supporting it.”[10]

After the 1994 midterm elections, the Senate began to show the partisan polarization that already afflicted the House. Out of the 100 senators, 43 senators were now alumni of the House, including 25 Republicans.[11] Many of these Republican senators would later be labelled as the “Gingrich senators.” These were members who were elected to the House after 1978, the year Gingrich was elected, and who later went on to run for Senate seats, taking with them the adversary attitudes cultivated by the oppositional politics Gingrich instilled in House members. “The Gingrich senators have taken their more conservative voting record from the House to the Senate,” writes political scientists Sean Theriault. “In fact, almost the entire increase in party polarization in the Senate can be accounted for the Gingrich Senators’ increasingly conservative record and in their increasing numbers.”[12]

McCain was a Gingrich senator, transitioning from the House to the Senate in January 1987. While McCain would reliably vote along party lines, his independent streak began to emerge in the 1990s. McCain angered fellow Senate Republicans when he sided with President Clinton in 1998 to introduce legislation that would raise cigarette taxes.[13] A quarter of House Republicans revolted against Gingrich to vote in favor of the House version of the legislation. As Gingrich continued to become more entangled in controversy over his own ethics, another leadership heavyweight was emerging as the nation’s preeminent Republican, the Mississippi senator and Senate majority leader, Trent Lott.

Doubt surrounded Lott’s ability to control the ever more conservative senators and their partisan politicking behavior. Lott had been criticized in the past for his partnership with Democrats to pass welfare and health-insurance reforms, raise the minimum wage and enact a safe-drinking-water measure. A profile by the New York Times Magazine, “Trent Lott and His Fierce Freshmen” reported that behind a closed door meeting the moderate Republican Mark Hatfield of Oregon warned the new leader, “Trent, you’re giving away too much.”[14]

Lott, like all members of the Republican leadership team, vehemently opposed the McCain-Feingold bill. Under a Republican-controlled Congress, McCain and Feingold knew they would have to scale back from the comprehensive reform they had initially envisioned. On February 24, 1998, McCain again introduced the legislation in the Senate. This time they had a more targeted focus: to eliminate the increasing amounts of soft money – unlimited, unregulated contributions to political parties by corporations, unions, special interest and wealthy individuals. After three days of debate McCain and Feingold weren’t able to muster the necessary 60 votes for a cloture motion – a procedural vote used to break a filibuster. Again, they had lost, but they got further than they had three years earlier.

Schiff felt defeated. They had lost the cloture motion. This was the best opportunity they’d had so far, and it was gone. Feingold, with the hindsight of having been through it before, had a long-term view of reform. He told Schiff, “Just remember in legislation you lose and lose and lose and lose again and then you win, and you only have to win once.”[15] As is common with reform legislation, scandals beget change. Congress was still dealing with the fallout from Bill Clinton’s campaign finance scandal. If not that, then what was going to finally force change?

Following the vote, McCain left the Senate floor and headed for a group of reporters. “I never said we would easily persuade our colleagues to vote to change a system that keeps incumbents in office,” he said. “But I am also confident we will win over time. There is probably some scandal going on right now even as we speak, because this system has become corrupted.”[16]

Having successfully defeated the McCain-Feingold bill, Lott was now on his way, with eight other Republican senators, to headline a fundraising event for Feingold’s opponent. The $1,000-per-person fundraiser was held at La Colline, an upscale restaurant just steps from the Senate, where fundraisers are often held when Congress is in session.[17] Not immune to the realities of funding his own reelection campaign, Feingold held a $50-per-person event in the home of supporter that drew about 200 people.

Feingold was prepared to stick to his principles, even if it meant sacrificing his career. The Democratic leadership, however, wasn’t prepared to sacrifice his seat. Republicans already had a 55-seat majority and Democrats weren’t prepared to risk lengthening the odds of recapturing the Senate. In the summer of 1998 a range of polls showed Feingold leading by 15 percentage points or more, but by fall the race was tightening.[18] The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee (DSCC) decided it was time to intervene. It tried to circumvent the Wisconsin senator and started running campaign commercials trashing Neumann on Feingold’s behalf, as did labor unions and other interest groups aligned with the party.[19] Enraged, Feingold directed his staff to send out a press release saying he denounced the phony issue ads, “I’ve attempted to stand up to the Democratic Party – my own political party – and have asked them NOT to exploit the soft money-phony issue ads loophole on my behalf.”[20]

Campaigns are about momentum. Just months out from election day Wittenwyler thought the momentum was moving against Feingold. The campaign released its own commercial, which aptly became known as the “high road ad.” “Everybody was saying this is suicidal,” said Wittenwyler. “So we thought okay let’s own that. Let’s talk about why it is that you’re doing this.”[21] The 30-second spot shows Feingold walking up a hill in the country, saying, “By now, you’ve probably seen a lot more commercials for my opponent. And you may wonder how he can outspend an incumbent senator like me. Simple, I volunteered to limit my spending because I believe people, not money, should determine elections. And big-money, out-of-state groups are providing millions in undisclosed funds for ads backing my opponent or attacking me. But we can show the whole country that big money can’t drown out our voices.” After that, momentum shifted toward Feingold.

With less than six weeks to election day, the Wisconsin Journal Times reported that Neumann’s campaign commercials were funded by large amounts of soft money directed to the candidate by the Republican National Committee.[22] The race that was supposed to represent what reform could look like, instead descended on one side to exactly what McCain and Feingold had been saying was wrong with the campaign finance system. One Republican attack commercial in particular antagonized Feingold. The commercial featured an older woman who says, “You gotta watch that ol’ Russ Feingold – he’s slippery. Like him supporting that $16 billion bill with all those wasteful government programs and then pretending he opposed it.”[23]

An investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found the commercial was the third one paid for in the past month by Republican Party, with the bulk of that money originating from the National Republican Senatorial Committee.[24] The committee was led by Senator Mitch McConnell, who spent much of his own time and party funds trying to defeat Feingold and the campaign finance overhaul he was championing.[25] Feingold said he had expected a full force attack from the Republican Party; in fact, he was counting on it. “I knew he [Neumann] would exploit every loophole in the campaign finance system,” said Feingold. “I knew he would embarrass himself and that the Republicans would embarrass themselves by attacking me harshly, and after 16 years (in the Wisconsin Senate and the U.S. Senate), I knew people might not have agreed with me, but they knew I was a decent guy.”[26]

In 1992 everyone had told Feingold he couldn’t win. So in the lead-up to 1998 election day, when Wittenwyler was getting daily calls from concerned donors, he didn’t doubt they could win. “You go through an experience once of winning when everybody told you it wasn’t possible,” said Wittenwyler. “And it’s hard for you to see how you’re going to lose again because you proved them wrong the first time.”[27] Ten days out from the election a poll put Neumann ahead, 46 to 43, with 10 percent still undecided.[28] Voters who remained undecided had a new way of evaluating candidates. For the first time, the Feingold campaign had a website – www.Feingold98.org – where visitors had an opportunity to listen to or watch campaign announcement speeches and see campaign advertisements. When asked by a local reporter about the website, Wittenwyler said, “We put 500 pages of material in our Web site, and lots of effort making it easy to use. But we have no idea how much people will actually use it when choosing their candidate.”[29]

Pessimistic about his friend’s chances of retaining his seat, McCain tried to keep the discouragement out of his voice when he called Feingold on the morning of November 3, 1998, election day, to wish him luck. “Don’t worry, John,” said Feingold. “I’m gonna win. It will be close, but I’ll win.” McCain, comfortably awaiting his own return to office, later said he had seldom admired a colleague more.[30] Feingold risked his own seat and, in the process, championing the cause they were both fighting for. He made it the cornerstone of his reelection campaign, but McCain was about to take it to a bigger stage.

Despite months of dire predictions by Republicans that Clinton’s scandals would plague his party, Democrats roared back to life in the midterm elections.[31] Yet as polls closed across Wisconsin there was no clear victor. Network TV cameras were broadcasting nationwide from the Marriot-Madison West in Middleton, Feingold’s campaign night headquarters. Among the dozens of cameras was an outlier. NHK/Japan Broadcasting Corp., had taken interest in the campaign. “Feingold is about to get his 15 minutes of fame in Japan,” said journalist Samara Kalk of the Madison Capital Times. Japanese media had become fascinated that a candidate was refusing financial assistance.[32]

Just before midnight Feingold took the stage all but claiming victory, despite the count being incomplete. “All I’m willing to say for sure at this point is that things look pretty good,” he said. Feingold told the crowd of supporters the current campaign finance system was a system of legalized bribery.[33] “Senator McConnell, I’m coming your way,” he said.[34] At 1:15 a.m. Neumann told his band of supporters, “we’re in the fourth quarter and we need all the three pointers to drop, but we’re not going to surrender until we’re sure they don’t go through the hoop.” But half an hour later, at 1:45 a.m. he conceded.[35] Less than 35,000 votes separated Feingold and Neuman in the final tally.

After the festivities died down a sense of relief ran through Feingold’s campaign staff. “It was a load off your back,” said Wittenwyler. “I remember having arguments with Russ where he thought I was being too pessimistic. It was a nail biter to the end.” Feingold and the staff walked to a nearly local restaurant, staying until late in the morning. Wittenwyler had put two years of hard work into that campaign. “It was a wonderful feeling,” he said.[36]

“Feingold Defies Party And Retains Senate Seat,” was the headline of the New York Times article the next day. It was reported that turnout was so high that some county precincts ran out of ballots.[37] Feingold was vindicated. In the face of growing party doubt he had been reelected, and importantly, he had demonstrated it was possible for an incumbent to win without the advantages of soft money. “After Russ, his wife, and his staff, despite my partisan affiliation, I was probably the most relieved person in the country,” wrote McCain. “I would still have the company in the Senate of my ally and good friend. We could continue our reform campaign together.”[38]

 

 

 

[1] John McCain and Mark Salter, Worth the Fighting For: The Education of an American Maverick, and the Heroes Who Inspired Him (Random House, 2002), p. 362

[2] Jill Abramson, “As Bill Died, Lawmakers Turned To Other Business: Raising Funds,” New York Times, February 27, 1998

[3] Interview by phone with Mike Wittenwyler

[4] Interview by phone with Mike Wittenwyler

[5] Interview by phone with Mike Wittenwyler

[6] Interview by phone with Mike Wittenwyler

[7] Sanford D. Horwitt, Feingold: A New Democratic Party (Simon & Schuster, 2007), p.180-181

[8] Pam Belluck, “Feingold Defies Party And Retains Senate Seat,” New York Times, November 4, 1998, p. B4

[9] Interview by phone with Bob Schiff

[10] John McCain and Mark Salter, Worth the Fighting For: The Education of an American Maverick, and the Heroes Who Inspired Him (Random House, 2002), p. 360

[11] Thomas F. Schaller, The Stronghold: How Republicans Captured Congress but Surrendered the White House (Yale University Press, 2015), p.136-137

[12] Sean M. Theriault, The Gingrich senators (Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 49-50

[13] David E. Rosenbaum, “The Tobacco Bill: The Overview; Senate Drops Tobacco Bill with ’98 Revival Unlikely; Clinton Lashes Out At G.O.P.,” New York Times, June 18, 1998, https://www.nytimes.com/1998/06/18/us/tobacco-bill-overview-senate-drops-tobacco-bill-with-98-revival-unlikely-clinton.html

[14] Richard L. Berke, “Trent Lott and His Fierce Freshmen,” New York Times Magazine, February 2, 1997, p. 40

[15] Interview by phone with Bob Schiff

[16] Candy Crowley, “Campaign Finance Bill Likely Dead For The Year,” CNN All Politics, February 26, 1998

[17] Jill Abramson, “As Bill Died, Lawmakers Turned To Other Business: Raising Funds,” New York Times, February 27, 1998

[18] Alan J. Bosruk, “Feingold narrow winner; Thompson makes history Senator renews call for reform,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, November 4, 1998, p.1

[19] Pam Belluck, “Feingold Defies Party And Retains Senate Seat,” New York Times, November 4, 1998, p. B4

[20] “Feingold Denounces Independent DSCC Soft-Money Phony Issue Ad,” campaign press release, October 21, 1998

[21] Interview by phone with Mike Wittenwyler

[22] Jeff Mayers, “Ad campaign for Senate a symbol of money politics,” The Journal Times, October 18, 1998

[23] Text of ad in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 25, 1998

[24] Alan J. Borsuk, “Feingold Blasts GOP Ad,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, September 26, 1998

[25] Alison Mitchell and Eric Schmitt, “The 1998 Elections: Congress — The Overview; G.O.P in Scramble Over Blame for Poor Showing at the Polls,” The New York Times, November 5, 1998, https://www.nytimes.com/1998/11/05/us/1998-elections-congress-overview-gop-scramble-over-blame-for-poor-showing-polls.html

[26] David Callender, “Feingold Wins 70% in County,” The [Madison] Capital Times, November 4, 1998, p.1A

[27] Interview by phone with Mike Wittenwyler

[28] Alan J. Borsuk, “Election 98 Feingold seemed to be underdog in race. He says role reversal helped him rally against Neumann’s challenge,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, November 5, 1998, p.13

[29] John Lepinski, “Internet Powerful Tool for Candidates, Voters,” Wisconsin State Journal, November 1, 1998, p.21

[30] John McCain and Mark Salter, Worth the Fighting For: The Education of an American Maverick, and the Heroes Who Inspired Him (Random House, 2002), p. 363

[31] Richard L. Berke, “The 1998 Elections: The Nation — The Overview; Democrats Hold Off G.O.P Advance, Weakening Impeachment Prospects; Schumer Ousts D’Amato; Pataki Wins,” The New York Times, November 4, 1998, https://www.nytimes.com/1998/11/04/us/1998-elections-nation-overview-democrats-hold-off-gop-advance-weakening.html?auth=login-smartlock

[32] Samara Kalk, “Japanese Media Show Yen for Dramatic Feingold Tale,” Madison Capital Times, November 5, 1998, p.5A

[33] David Callender, “Feingold Wins 70% in County,” The [Madison] Capital Times, November 4, 1998, p.1A

[34] Alan J. Bosruk, “Feingold narrow winner; Thompson makes history Senator renews call for reform,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, November 4, 1998, p.1

[35] Alan J. Bosruk, “Feingold narrow winner; Thompson makes history Senator renews call for reform,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, November 4, 1998, p.1

[36] Interview by phone with Mike Wittenwyler

[37] Pam Belluck, “Feingold Defies Party And Retains Senate Seat,” New York Times, November 4, 1998, p. B4

[38] John McCain and Mark Salter, Worth the Fighting For: The Education of an American Maverick, and the Heroes Who Inspired Him (Random House, 2002), p.363