Christian Schneider

Author, Columnist

Category: WI Magazine (page 1 of 2)

How a Bill Does Not Become a Law: An activist Dane County court has brashly upended the rules of lawmaking

Schneider22.1Every two years, the Wisconsin Assembly issues an activity book for schoolchildren. The book includes a cartoon called “How a Bill Becomes a Law,” which details the happy life of an ebullient piece of legislation named Bill.

Bill leads a simple life — all he wants to do is one day earn the governor’s signature on his belly and become law. The cartoon follows his traditional journey, from hearings held on his merits, to committees voting him out, to both houses of the Legislature passing him before sending him to the governor to become law.

Such has been the legislative process since Wisconsin’s inception in 1848. Yet in recent years, Bill’s celebration upon being signed by the governor would be a bit premature. Having lost control of the Legislature and the governorship, Wisconsin Democrats have added another step: To become law, Bill must first pay a visit to the Dane County Circuit Court.

Dane County has the distinction of not only being the home of state government; it is also indisputably one of the most politically liberal counties in America. And despite being only one of Wisconsin’s 69 state circuit courts, it has essentially become a second legislature.

Our friend Bill may have earned the imprimatur of legislators elected from all over the state and the signature of a governor elected by a majority of Wisconsin voters, but a single Dane County judge can derail Bill’s attempt to find a cozy home within the pages of the state’s statute books.

This is a problem not just for poor Bill, but also for the unfortunate citizens around Wisconsin who elect Republicans to the state Assembly, Senate and governorship. The ballots of millions are counteracted by the vote of one robed master elected by a strongly progressive electorate, whose elevated position is not earned by any specific legal skill or expertise, but instead his or her proximity to State Street. In fact, until recently, any lawsuit against the state of Wisconsin had to be filed in Dane County, giving its Circuit Court an elevated importance over any other local court in the state.

And thus, the Dane County Circuit Court has become a legal ATM for the state’s progressives: Insert a court challenge, and out comes a favorable opinion that will cost your opponents buckets of cash to appeal.

So-called “venue shopping” like this isn’t all that new. For instance, the federal court in Marshall, Texas, has been traditionally known to be friendly to those seeking money for patent infringements, and large companies from around the nation typically end up in this small Texas town. Quick trials and plaintiff-friendly juries are the norm in Marshall (as is its annual Fire Ant Festival), making it a popular vacation spot for lawyers.

Of course, picking a friendly federal appeals court is tricky, given that you have to predict what the lower courts are going to do. But those looking for anti-business outcomes are generally served well by filing cases in the jurisdiction of the notoriously liberal 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers nine western states. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court either reversed or vacated 19 of the 26 cases it reviewed from the 9th Circuit; two years earlier, the supremes shot down 94 percent of its cases.

The Dane County Circuit Court has proven itself another great haven for liberal venue shoppers. In March 2011, it found itself in the middle of a national controversy when Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne filed a lawsuit attempting to block implementation of Gov. Scott Walker’s new law restricting public sector collective bargaining. Unable to prevail legislatively, Democrats attempted to sink the bill in the courts. And they found a very sympathetic ear in Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi.

It was important that Democrats get a lawsuit moving quickly; on April 5, Supreme Court Justice David Prosser was up for election in a race that would decide the high court’s ideological balance. Having a case pending in a state court would bolster the impression that the Prosser election was really an election about whether Walker’s broadside to the public unions would stand.

On March 16, seven days after the Wisconsin Senate passed the collective bargaining bill, Ozanne filed a lawsuit seeking not to overturn the law, but to prevent it from being published in the first place. Two days later, Sumi heard one day’s worth of testimony, issued a temporary restraining order stopping publication of the law and quickly left town on a weeklong family vacation.

On his blog, Marquette University law professor Rick Esenberg said he was “astonished” at Sumi’s ruling, noting that in 1943, the state Supreme Court held that judges may not enjoin the publication of a law on the basis that it is or might be unconstitutional. “A bill, in the court’s view, is not enacted until it is published such that publication is part of the legislative process with which courts may not interfere,” noted Esenberg.

On April 5, Prosser narrowly defeated his liberal challenger, JoAnne Kloppenburg. On May 25, attorneys at the state Department of Justice sent Sumi a letter indicating that they might seek her recusal. The very next day, Sumi issued her opinion striking down the law in its entirety.

Within months, the state Supreme Court assumed its role as the state’s legal janitor and cleaned up the mess Sumi had made. (She ruled that the state Senate violated the open-meetings law, but failed to acknowledge the pertinent exemption for legislative actions.) In a contentious decision that led to accusations of justices choking each other, Prosser excoriated Sumi, writing, “In turbulent times, courts are expected to act with fairness and objectivity. They should serve as the impartial arbiters of legitimate legal issues. They should not insert themselves into controversies or exacerbate existing tensions.”

While the Supreme Court vacated Sumi’s decision, the pro-union litigants were not done. On Sept. 14, Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas once again struck down Walker’s law, this time based on a challenge from Madison schoolteachers and Milwaukee city employees. The ruling blocked the law from being applied to school and local government workers, but it remains in effect for state workers and employees of the University of Wisconsin System. The case is being appealed.

Yet another case of “Walker nullification” took place when Dane County Circuit Judge David Flanagan, who had signed the recall petition against Walker, struck down a Walker-approved law requiring photo identification to vote. Inexplicably, Flanagan did not disclose that he had signed the petition.

While the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a similar voter-identification law in Indiana, Flanagan ruled that his opinion should effectively trump the Supreme Court because the Indiana law allows a voter 10 days after casting a provisional ballot to produce identification, while the Wisconsin law allows only three days.

The fact that Dane County always got the first crack at adjudicating lawsuits against the state clearly irritated Republicans, who in 2011 passed a law allowing plaintiffs suing the state to pick venues other than Dane County. Legislative Republicans took advantage of this new law during the Walker recall process, when they sued the state Government Accountability Board in Waukesha County, which they considered a friendlier venue.

This new law, however, does nothing to stop liberal groups from filing suits in Dane County. Esenberg noted that constitutional challenges to enacted legislation are “nothing new,” and that challenges aren’t always illegitimate. But he notes that cases filed by Democrats in Dane County have become uniquely problematic, given that Dane is a “company town.”

“You have exceptionally politically charged cases being brought in a county which has this sort of this toxic combination of being both politically homogeneous and politically aroused,” said Esenberg. “You had these pieces of legislation coming before elected judges in a county where people were marching in the streets, pretty much all in opposition to these things, which raises questions about the political pressures that may be brought to bear on a judge who finds himself or herself in that situation.”

And while the ability of circuit courts to strike down state laws is not new, the recent hyper-partisan way in which the courts are being asked to function will have long-lasting impacts on Wisconsin law. Scott Walker and the GOP Legislature may only be with Wisconsin for the span of a few years; the precedent of litigating everything as a political weapon may be with the state forever.

Those ideological pressures placed on circuit courts will likely boil up again now that the Legislature has passed a much-discussed bill to allow an iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin. Environmental groups are expected to file suit at some point to block the mine. And that move for an injunction will almost certainly be filed in Dane County.

Some judicial observers have argued that it doesn’t matter where cases like this begin, as long as the Supreme Court is there to serve as a backstop to Dane County. For conservatives, this reasoning is problematic.

First, while the makeup of the court currently leans conservative, the court is usually only one April election away from switching ideologies. Liberals need but a single seat, in other words, to turn the court from a stop sign to a green light for Dane County opinions.

One thing is certain — the more the lower courts are seen as mere political arms, the worse it is for the reputation of the Supreme Court. Some conservatives have grown frustrated that the Supreme Court hasn’t yanked jurisdiction away from the appellate courts and struck down Flanagan’s photo identification ruling, for example.

But as one justice told me, that’s not at all how the Supreme Court should work. The court, instead, should almost always let the process work itself out. Setting a precedent of clutching politically expedient cases away from appellate courts could be terrible for the right, especially if liberals regain control of the Supreme Court.

In the wake of the recent Dane County decisions, the Republican Legislature has also proposed changes to how cases are handled. One proposal, for instance, would have prevented circuit courts from blocking duly enacted laws. Esenberg believes this would be a mistake, not only given that some laws should be invalidated, but also because politics are cyclical, and one day Republicans will need lower courts to block the actions of a Democratic governor.

Esenberg proposed a potential remedy for over-politicization of the courts: If a circuit court wants to issue an injunction to block a state statute, the party opposing the injunction has 10 days to appeal.

According to Esenberg’s proposal, if the ruling isn’t appealed in 10 days, the stay is lifted and the injunction is effective. If the ruling is appealed, the stay would remain in place, and the appeals court would have to lift it. If both the appeals court and circuit court agree on the injunction, then it stays in place.

But regardless of what reforms might pass, Republicans will not be able to legislate Dane County out of existence. Challengers to Scott Walker’s agenda will continue to look to the Dane County courts to block the will of the people. And liberal judges will continue to garner awards like Sumi’s for being the State Bar of Wisconsin’s “2011 Judge of the Year.”

And this will be bad news for our good friend Bill, who will have to routinely pack his bags for Dane County. Maybe the state can get him some Badger football tickets to make his frequent stays more pleasant.

Walker or Ryan? Here’s the early line on their 2016 chances

Schneider-Walker-RyanEvery now and then, two major talents emerge in close proximity. In 2011, Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder of the Milwaukee Brewers finished first and third, respectively, in the National League’s Most Valuable Player voting. Twelve times, two actors (including, in one case, three) from the same movie have been nominated for Oscars for Best Actor. (The most recent was 1984, when F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce were both nominated for “Amadeus.” Abraham won.)

In politics, Wisconsin is experiencing such an embarrassment of talent. Virtually every other part of the country is honored to have one elected official with the chops to be considered presidential material. Yet in the Dairy State, the only debate is over which of its two top Republican stars would make a better commander in chief.

So who has the better chance? Gov. Scott Walker or Congressman Paul Ryan?

Walker and Ryan grew up within a car drive of one another. Ryan lived in Janesville, while Walker was raised 20 miles away in Delavan. Each considers Ronald Reagan a key figure in his political development. And both dominated national news in 2012 on their way to becoming national GOP stars.

Ryan, of course, had his taste of a presidential run, having served as Mitt Romney’s capable vice presidential sidekick. While the party faithful initially worried about how Ryan’s aggressive plans to scale back Medicare and Social Security would play with voters, it appears that Ryan may have been a net boost to the Romney campaign. While Romney lost the election by a wide margin of electoral votes, his slim margins of defeat in key states like Ohio, Virginia and Florida show those states ended up being closer than the polls indicated before the Ryan pick. He most certainly didn’t harm his status with the party faithful, who now know Ryan can stand up to the pressures of a nationwide campaign.

Yet with congressional Republicans faring so poorly nationwide, many party faithful think it is time to look for a governor like Walker. He’s taken his licks and won a recall election by a larger margin than he won his first gubernatorial contest; his toughness is appealing to a party that currently lacks it.

Of the two, Ryan is the better public speaker. His 14 years in Congress have honed his skills; he can speak knowledgeably and extemporaneously, no matter how arcane the topic. Walker has improved as a speaker, but he is cautious and more reserved than Ryan. His appeal is immense with Republicans, but he still makes progressives scream at their televisions.

Walker has history on his side. The only president elected directly from the House to the presidency was James Garfield in 1880 — a singular event that solidified Garfield’s status as either the best campaigner or worst president of all time, depending on one’s perspective. Governors, on the other hand, routinely ascend to the presidency, as voters appear to see their executive experience on the state level as a plausible dry run.

Of the two, Walker also appears to be the more ambitious. Following the November election, Walker went on an aggressive speaking tour around the country and has coyly avoided ruling out a run in 2016 (assuming he is re-elected in 2014).

Conversely, despite being a key player in the “fiscal cliff” negotiations, Ryan has disappeared from the public eye and has uniformly downplayed his desire for higher office. He genuinely seems to enjoy policy over politics.

For Wisconsin Republicans, it is an impossible choice. Eventually, it may be up to the other 49 states to decide for them.

Que Pasa Republicano? To win again, the GOP needs to appeal to Hispanics

mexicoFollowing the 2012 presidential election, pundits of all stripes began appealing to retroactive prescience to explain what cost Mitt Romney the presidency. Whatever their pet issue, it suddenly became the reason Romney blew it — the Republican “war on women,” climate change denial, etc. Members of the Star Wars fan club thought Romneygot hammered because he didn’t take up the cause of Ewok independence.

But the most cited reason for Republican failure was the fact that Hispanic voters continue to drift away from the GOP. According to exit polls, Mitt Romney received 27 percent of the Latino vote, down from the 31 percent John McCain received in 2008 and down even farther from the 44.1 percent George W. Bush garnered in 2004.

In recent years, Republicans have tried to appeal to Latinos by stressing the similarities of their core beliefs: Hispanics are industrious and family-oriented, and their religious convictions make them a natural constituency for the GOP.

Earlier this year, I sat down with Gov. Scott Walker, and he explained that if Republicans stuck to a message of freedom and lower taxes, Hispanics would become allies. “The vast majority of Latino voters I know in Milwaukee County and statewide are very much driven by the small-business, entrepreneurial, hard-work mindset, and they really don’t want the government in their way.”

“I try not to ‘silo’ voters. I try to listen to what their concerns are,” he said. “I’ve actually spent a lot of time with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and… I realized that their members care about barriers to growth in small business — excessive regulations, excessive litigation, property taxes are too high, the sorts of things that I talk to everyone about. So I don’t say, ‘Here, my Latino message is going to be different than my message anywhere else out there,’ and I think voters appreciate that.”

But as Hispanics continue to jump ship, Republican campaigns become less about persuasion and more about simple math. There just aren’t enough white voters to maintain the GOP’s slim margins of victory in swing districts.

Still, as Walker’s statements indicate, it is simply not in the Republican DNA to start slicing up voters by race. Democrats are the ones who see voters in groups and tailor their message accordingly. Republicans see voters as individuals and expect their messages of liberty and self-sufficiency to have broad appeal. For Republicans, appealing to minority voters is like speaking a second language.

But it is something they have to do.

There is a small, fairly well-reasoned contingent of conservatives who would support modifying the Republican hardline stance on immigration. Despite the left’s dismissal of George W. Bush as a right-wing ideologue, he proposed the “guest worker” plan in 2004, accurately recognizing, I think, that we’re not just going to pack up 12 million illegals and ship them home. That plan was burned to the ground by his own party.

Republicans would be wise to follow the Jack Kemp “bleeding-heart conservative” blueprint. Kemp and his Empower America cohort Bill Bennett were outspoken proponents of immigration, calling immigrants “a blessing, not a curse.” In 1994, Kemp and Bennett opposed California ballot Proposition 187, a measure to bar illegal immigrants from obtaining public services.

Some Republicans think putting a Hispanic conservative on the ballot will bring Latinos home — as if Marco Rubio alone is the answer. But the record shows that Hispanics will vote against other Hispanics if they don’t reflect the interests of the group as a whole.

For Republicans, a lot is at stake: Without Hispanics, they may become a permanent minority themselves.

Political Misdirection: Candidates sometimes reveal more about themselves than they’d like

flagAn old Democratic campaign manager once revealed to me the key to successful public relations: “The more liberal your candidate, the bigger the American flag has to be on his bumper.”

It’s a simple illustration of how candidates are free to write their own narrative, no matter the facts. As George Armstrong Custer once said, his goal was “to make my narrative as truthful as possible.” Candidates are free to accentuate the things that make them look good, even if doing so provides a window into what they really think.

For instance, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Eric Hovde began his campaign this year by emphasizing his ties to Wisconsin. In one of his early TV ads, he proudly announces that he was born in the state and attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Surely, any candidate wants to show voters he’s one of them, but Hovde has a special challenge: He hasn’t actually lived in Wisconsin in a quarter of a century. Hovde’s job as a hedge fund manager took him to Washington, D.C.; consequently, he’s ready to don a cheesehead, paint his chest green and gold, and change his two daughters’ names to “Harley” and “Davidson.”

Certainly this isn’t dishonest, but it’s clearly an attempt to make Hovde’s “narrative as truthful as possible.” Messaging misdirection is as endemic to politics as noodles are to lasagna. They go together like “beef” and “stroganoff” or “cole” and “slaw.” (Side note: Is there any other kind of slaw? Can we drop the “cole,” or is there a “Citizens for Cole” interest group out there keeping it alive?)

On May 17, the state Department of Workforce Development issued a press release announcing new statewide jobs numbers. The new Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers were of particular interest, as the gubernatorial recall candidates were sparring over different sets of employment numbers. Gov. Scott Walker’s numbers showed the state was gaining jobs, while Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett relied on a BLS report indicating that Wisconsin was last in the nation in job creation over the past year.

The headline of the DWD release said it all: “Wisconsin April unemployment rate declines to 6.7 percent.” I read it and immediately thought: “Oh, no, the state lost jobs.” Because if the state had gained jobs, that would have been the headline. When the BLS numbers show the state losing jobs, the unemployment rate is the last refuge for a positive headline. Sure enough, there in the last paragraph, on the second page, was the number: The BLS estimated a loss of 6,800 in the previous month.

Barrett himself wasn’t above shifting the topic. In fact, the whole recall election was a change in subject, as Barrett was loathe to mention public-sector collective bargaining even though it was the overwhelming reason why the recall petition got traction in the first place.

At one point, Barrett issued a memo showing his campaign “gaining momentum” in the polls. Translation: “I am losing this race.”

Regular people understand how ridiculous some efforts to control the narrative can be. Imagine your spouse joyously telling you that you can spend more time together… because Ryan Braun just got eaten by a leopard that ran out on the baseball field. Or picture your wife telling you the “great news” that you can finally go buy that Harley-Davidson that you always wanted… because she’s moving to Sweden with Sven, her personal trainer.

This isn’t simply reading between the lines — it’s reading outside the lines. So watch political ads very closely; generally, candidates will emphasize an area where they feel weakest. By trying to tell you nothing, they will often tell you everything.

Hiding Behind the Kids: Citing family, too many pols duck electoral duty

Last August, Congressman Paul Ryan announced for the 43rd time that he would not run for president. He’s always maintained that the ages of his children — three kids between the ages of 6 and 9 — are a factor in his decision. His standard line? “My head isn’t big enough, and my kids are too small.”

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels begged off, saying he didn’t want to subject his family to the scrutiny of a presidential campaign. “In the end, I was able to resolve every competing consideration,” he said, except for the most important consideration of all — “the interests and wishes of my family.” And when irascible New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie bowed out of the race, he deemed it a “family decision.”

All of these family considerations have left Republican presidential voters with a choice of C-list emetics for candidates. Mitt Romney is a Republican when he deems it necessary to win Republican elections. Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry all flamed out before the primaries were even held. Newt Gingrich is so toxic, he should wear a Mr. Yuk sticker on his lapel. (Poor Mitch Daniels: He hesitated to run because his wife once left him and returned to remarry him. Yet GOP voters warmed up to Gingrich, who changes wives more often than he flosses.)

And while “do it for the kids” is an aphorism in politics, more and more politicians are deciding not to do it for the kids. They want to protect their children from the Palin-ization of presidential politics, where every offspring’s missteps could translate into blogging frenzy.

But exactly how many of these kids are pleading with their parents to eschew a run for president? Think any politician’s 10-year-old-son wouldn’t love to say, “Hey, Dad, I’m having trouble with my footwork — can you call Peyton Manning and have him come over and show me the three-step drop?” You think “My dad is president” might be a good icebreaker with the ladies at high school parties?

The whole “I want to spend more time with my family” excuse is worn out and meaningless. Ambitious men have always run for office to get away from their families — generally, they only rediscover their progeny when it seems like they can’t win again. But that’s the beauty of being president — you get to take your whole family with you and live in the same house.

Furthermore, blaming the family when you decide not to run is a bit unseemly. Suddenly, your kids become impediments to the realization of America’s greatness. Suppose you spend all your time talking about how America is going to implode without changes to its entitlement programs — and then decide not to change those programs because you might miss some T-ball games?

How does that sound to military families, who have to do without fathers and mothers for extended periods of time (and sometimes forever) to preserve the American idea?

Sasha and Malia. The Bush daughters. Chelsea Clinton. All of us would be proud to have children as happy and well-adjusted as these kids — and every one has lived through the apparent horrors of growing up in the coolest house in America. We know politicians love their kids — but so do hundreds of millions of other American families that are looking for visionary and inspiring presidential candidates. We’ll chip in for baby-sitting, we promise.

Mark Pocan’s Smoke Screen: His pieties about protecting middle class families are a cover for hiking taxes on the poor

On June 15, Mark Pocan was on a roll. He stood on the floor of the Wisconsin Assembly delivering a sarcastic stem-winder, criticizing the new state budget so dramatically that it sounded as if he were auditioning for a community theater production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

Pocan, who seems destined to inherit Tammy Baldwin’s safely Democratic congressional seat, ripped the Republican-authored budget for its use of fund raids, debt restructuring and fee increases (mostly UW tuition) to balance the budget.

Of course, this was pure calumny, as the last Democratic budget — authored with Pocan as co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee — could be characterized only by those exact gimmicks.

Pocan thundered that the budget was an “attack on the middle-class families of Wisconsin.” In a particularly obnoxious critique of the GOP, Pocan said Gov. Scott Walker’s budget “increased property taxes” by $475 million. Of course the state doesn’t “increase” property taxes — it merely limits how much local governments can increase property taxes.

Apparently Pocan lost the memo that demonstrated that using those same numbers, the Pocan-authored budget of 2009 “raised” property taxes by $1.49 billion — more than three times Walker’s alleged increase.

Pocan finished with the most disingenuous talking point: Republicans were going after the middle class by scaling back the homestead and earned-income tax credits by $69.8 million. Surely, Democrats would never support taxes that harm the middle class!

In fact, Democrats prefer taxes that harm the poor.

Exactly 734 days earlier, Pocan stood on the Assembly floor arguing for a budget he authored that increased the cigarette tax by 75 cents per pack. This hike occurred directly on the heels of a $1 per pack tax increase that Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle signed into law just two years earlier.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 54% of all cigarette smokers have incomes at or below 200% of the federal poverty level. Increasing taxes on cigarettes is a direct tax increase on people who can least afford it. And the increase isn’t insignificant.

State cigarette tax receipts jumped 54% the year after the $1 per-pack hike. In the three years since the Legislature began raising cigarette taxes, receipts have increased $762.9 million over the base of $296 million in 2007. If Wisconsin smokers follow national income patterns, that amounts to a $412 million tax increase on the state’s poorest people — the same people we pretend to help by pouring millions into social programs.

As a result of this massive tax increase on the poor, Wisconsin papered over its own fiscal mismanagement in the prior decade. Cigarette tax revenues now account for 5.3% of state general fund revenues, as opposed to only 2.35% three years ago. At $2.52 per pack, Wisconsin has the seventh-highest cigarette tax in the nation, behind only notorious spendthrifts like New York, New Jersey and Hawaii.

Democrats argued that higher cigarette taxes would dissuade people from smoking, leading to a healthier populace. Yet the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Bureau estimates the number of smokers has dropped by only 3% per year since 2000.

In the meantime, one can walk into any gas station in Wisconsin and see a tattooed mother in her pajamas, holding a child in each arm, plunk down sixty bucks for a carton of heaters.

Sure, nobody puts a lighter to anyone’s head and forces them to buy cigarettes. But the numbers show that the new taxes aren’t really slowing many people down. And thanks to Democrats, being poor has gotten a lot more expensive.

Tough Noogies: What’s the big deal that Scott Walker didn’t campaign on curbing union power?

On the day before Gov. Scott Walker introduced his plan to restrict public-sector collective bargaining, he met with Democratic legislative leaders to brief them on the details. Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca expressed disbelief, complaining to Walker that he hadn’t mentioned the plan at all during the gubernatorial campaign.

This meme has become the primary obloquy hurled at Walker during the collective-bargaining firestorm: Walker is somehow a liar for not mentioning his plan while campaigning for governor in fall 2010. Walker’s proposal “went far beyond what anybody thought he would do,” union leader Richard Abelson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in February. “He didn’t talk about it during the campaign. If he had said that, some people who supported him would have had some second thoughts,” said Abelson, head of District Council 48 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Yet the “we was duped” talking point is as old as democracy itself. Ancient Greeks were probably overheard saying things like, “None of Cleisthenes’ YouTube videos mentioned that he was going to stop me from trading my wife for three goats.”

In 1960, Republican presidential candidate Nelson Rockefeller ripped his primary opponent, Richard Nixon, for not being forthcoming with voters about his plans. “I find it unreasonable — in these times — that the leading Republican candidate for the presidential nomination has firmly insisted upon making known his program and his policies, not before, but only after nomination by his party,” Rockefeller said.

He lost.

The Walker complainers have a more finely honed selective memory than people who remember the Titanic as a fine dining experience. Do they recall Walker’s predecessor, Democrat Jim Doyle, campaigning on cutting the University of Wisconsin budget by $250 million and raising tuition 35% in two years to cover it? Was candidate Doyle in 2002 running around the state promising to raid the transportation fund and backfill it with debt? Of course not — but upon taking office, he thought he had to do these things to balance the budget.

In fact, the archetype of the lying politician is as ingrained in American politics as the sight of candidates kissing babies. Doyle promised never to raise taxes — yet he raised them by billions during his tenure. Candidate Barack Obama pledged to close the Guantanamo Bay prison facility — yet under President Obama, there it remains, providing the government with the intelligence it needed to catch Osama bin Laden.

And yet Walker isn’t being excoriated for going back on a promise; he’s being criticized simply for something he didn’t say. (Incidentally, plenty of unions were telling their members during the campaign that Walker was going to roll back their ability to bargain.) As if campaigns are measured, cautious affairs, where candidates put forth their plans and voters carefully measure each morsel of fiscal policy contained therein.

In reality, the Walker campaign was fighting off claims that he wanted to kill women by denying them mammograms.

Finally, would Walker really have not been elected had he proposed to limit union bargaining during the campaign? Face it, he would have won.

In a year where Republicans wiped Democrats off the face of the political map, winning control of the state Senate, the Assembly and the U.S. House of Representatives and defeating liberal icon Senator Russ Feingold, do people actually believe Walker would have lost? Does someone want to call Supreme Court Justice David Prosser and ask him what he thinks?”

People Do Stupid Things: That’s why political movements should be anchored in ideas

stupid_thingsIn the July issue of WI Magazine, I got the chance to write about the current “Conscience of Conservatism,” Congressman Paul Ryan. (A quick aside: Now would be a good time to start the “Paul Ryan Drinking Game.” Any time this magazine mentions Ryan, take a drink. You’ll be dialing up former lovers by the third page.)

During our discussion about his growing fame, Ryan said something that I immediately dismissed as false modesty: “It’s not about me, or my name, it’s about the ideas that I’m pushing.”

Like Frank Lloyd Wright, I prefer honest arrogance to fake humility. But in reviewing the past election season, I think Ryan has a point.

People do stupid things. We drill holes in our bodies. We tattoo the names of our favorite bands on our bodies. We listen to modern country music. We smoke. We have children with people to whom we are not married. We grow comb-overs.

And too often, politics is about people and not ideas. Flawed, misinformed, vulgar people.

Take, for example, poor Christine O’Donnell, the defeated Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Delaware. Had O’Donnell beaten the odds and earned election to the Senate, she would have likely been a dependable conservative — something voters in record numbers all over the country said they wanted.

But in the public’s perception, O’Donnell the oddball swallowed O’Donnell the conservative. She famously dabbled in the occult in high school, leading to the most memorable ad of the 2010 election cycle, in which she declared: “I’m not a witch.”

The examples of personal quirks derailing policy-minded pols could go on forever. Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s thirst for prostitutes quickly cut short his thirst to clean up Wall Street.

Erstwhile South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s principled anti-federal stimulus stand was forgotten when the voters learned he was being stimulated by an Argentine mistress.

Hanging the future of a political party on star power rather than ideological principles is always a risk. For one, candidates elected on the sheer force of their personality often stray from the parties that elected them. (See Schwarzenegger, Arnold.)

If ideas ran the show, Republicans wouldn’t have to cringe when Sarah Palin’s family life turns into a “Green Acres” episode. Democrats wouldn’t have to slap their heads in abasement when John Edwards is found to have fathered all of the Jonas Brothers.

And when politics becomes about ideas and not personalities, the discussion suddenly ramps up to a new level. Take, for example, the much-talked-about documentary Waiting for Superman. Written and directed by Davis Guggenheim (who directed Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth), the movie details how the American education system is destroying opportunity for inner-city youth.

Guggenheim forcefully argues for education reform, including eliminating tenure for teachers and expanding educational options.

Think tanks like this magazine’s publisher, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, have been soberly urging such reforms for decades. Yet once the Inconvenient Truth director waded into the morass, traditional Democrats sat up and began to ask hard questions about teachers unions. Suddenly, it’s not who is saying it, but what is being said that takes precedence.

A little Hollywood can be a good thing.

Certainly, it’s Pollyannaish to believe the day is coming when every voter carefully reads candidate policy pronouncements as if they are mutual fund prospectuses. Politics has drifted into the realm of entertainment and will likely stay there.

One suspects that Sen.-elect Rand Paul’s devotion to the “Aqua Buddha” occupies the same lobe in the national cranium as Lindsay Lohan’s inability to wear underwear in public.

But Paul Ryan is showing that pushing ideas for a politician doesn’t have to be a death sentence. In fact, it can help get government back where it belongs — in the news section.

The Making of a Candidate: The Inside Story of How Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson Quietly Became one of the Political Stories of 2010


Just by walking down Oregon Street in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, it’s hard to tell that the Fate of Democracy in America resides here.  At the end of the street, The Ron Johnson for U.S. Senate campaign headquarters inhabits a large brick building fronted by stately white columns.  The building rests across the street from the vast Jeld Wen premium wood door plant, and just north of the Bottoms Up Bar, where t-shirted patrons spend afternoons drinking to forget the problems U.S. Senate candidates promise to solve.  (It is one of five bars within one square city block.)

Oshkosh isn’t exactly the epicenter of Wisconsin politics.  No statewide political figure has been elected from Oshkosh since 1899, when Emmett Hicks served as the state’s Attorney General.  Oshkosh did make statewide political news a decade ago, when one of its adult bookstores found a former state senator offering an undercover police officer the opportunity to “munch” on his privates, thus creating the most entertaining arrest report in Wisconsin political history.

Inside the Johnson headquarters, bespectacled 31 year-old campaign manager Juston Johnson (no relation to Ron) rubs the top of his prematurely bald head.  He’s just gotten a call from the Wall Street Journal asking to talk about Johnson’s upstart campaign.  “I’m terrible at talking to the press,” he complains, and passes the call off to Kristin Ruesch, his newly minted communications director.

It’s been a dizzying six-week stretch for Juston, as 55 year-old Ron Johnson has gone from being an unknown plastics manufacturer from Oshkosh to getting calls from the Wall Street Journal about his campaign against 18-year Democratic incumbent U.S. Senator Russ Feingold.

Hopes for large Republican electoral gains are high in June of 2010.  Low approval ratings for President Obama and the Democrat-controlled Congress have opened up the possibility for Republicans to take back the U.S. House of Representatives – a scenario which had been unthinkable mere months ago.  A dyspeptic American public, weary from two years of high unemployment, appears poised to toss out the Democrats they have deemed ineffective.

There are even rumblings that the GOP wave could win Republicans back control of the U.S. Senate, which Democrats hold by a 59-41 margin.  The recent election of Republican Scott Brown from Massachusetts has a number of GOP challengers feeling that they can ride a wave of voter discontent with Democrats into the Senate. But in order to regain the majority, Republicans would have to sweep ten heavily contested contests around the country  – including races in traditional Democratic strongholds like California, Illinois, and Washington.

Ron Johnson from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, would be the tenth.

Wisconsin has elected one Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1963 (Bob Kasten, who defeated Wisconsin political icon Gaylord Nelson in 1980.) But amazingly, a Ron Johnson win doesn’t seem impossible early in 2010.  A new poll from a Democrat pollster has Johnson within two percentage points of Feingold, 45% to 43%, despite Johnson only being in the race for a little over a month.

Feingold is no easy target.  Elected since 1992, he has cultivated his reputation as a “maverick,” willing to break ranks with his party on fiscal issues.  He aims to be the pluripotent senator – able to adapt to whatever political environment suits him at the time.  However, his recent votes for the controversial health care overhaul and the expensive and ineffective “stimulus” bill may have weakened him irreparably.

Feingold’s weakened state has manifested itself in the early polling.  Yet Juston is skeptical of the numbers.  He notes that even lesser-known Republican Dave Westlake polls at 38% against Feingold, meaning Johnson is only a few percentage points above what’s known in politics as the “ham sandwich” number.  (This is the number that a ham sandwich would get if it were placed on a ballot against an incumbent.)

Furthermore, the poll purports to have a sample made up of half 2008 Obama presidential voters and half McCain voters.  This makes it seems as if the poll is balanced, but in reality, Obama won Wisconsin by thirteen percentage points – leading Juston to think Republicans may be overrepresented.  Then again, it’s only June 30th – it’s entirely possible that we could fighting the machines by the time the general election rolls around in November.

The inside of the RonJon campaign office is vast.  (“RonJon” is a nickname some of his staff have come up with for Johnson – they considered “RoJo,” but thought it made him sound too much like a guy who designs sweaters for poodles.)  This floor of the building used to be either a law office, or real estate office – nobody can really say, as it has sat dormant for years.  The office has been sectioned off into a sea of cubicles, almost all of which sit empty, waiting for the – fingers crossed – eventual army of volunteers.  Currently, Johnson has 17 paid staff members.

Strewn around the makeshift office walls are boxes of t-shirts, yard signs, and bumper stickers.  It has the look of a campaign office that has unpacked all of its belongings hastily.  Mostly because that’s exactly what has happened.

Despite being considered the U.S. Senate race that could regain Republicans the majority  in 2010, the campaign can’t seem to get their internet to work.  This morning, RonJon is conducting an interview with conservative Milwaukee talk radio host Charlie Sykes.  More than three people appear to be streaming the broadcast live over the internet, so the entire network goes down.  Throughout the day, depending on how many people are online at the same time, the wireless signal comes and goes.  If someone dared to attempt downloading a Lady Gaga album, it could knock the Ron Johnson campaign offline for three days.

Back in his cubicle, amongst the boxes, Jack Jablonski is settling in not looking forward to the long weeks ahead. Jablonski, the 36-year old deputy campaign manager, has run campaigns for Wisconsin state senate candidates for a decade. He recently left a congressional race in Western Wisconsin to help RonJon.  He is one of the oldest staffers in the office.

“Oshkosh is like a working man’s Eau Claire,” he says, as one who had spent many nights sleeping under a desk in Eau Claire running other campaigns.  He’s miserable and wants to go home.  Jablonski’s wife, Courtney, gave birth to his first child, a boy, just weeks ago – and Jack wants to see him.

In his remote cubicle, Jablonski is holding court with the other staffers, detailing a study he read that could bode well for RonJon.  Apparently, some political scientists have determined that voters are more likely to support the candidate with the narrower face.  It makes them look more trustworthy, or something.  These researchers actually used Feingold’s 2004 race against construction company owner Tim Michels to prove their point – Feingold’s face was narrower that Michels’ giant meaty head, so study respondents correctly picked Feingold as the winner by overwhelming margins.

“Ron’s face is even narrower than Feingold’s” Jablonski points out.  “Let’s all just go home – it’s a done deal,” he jokes.

It has fallen to the tightly-wound Jablonski to prepare RonJon for the rigors of campaign question-and-answer sessions.  (Friends say that Jablonski may be the only person on earth that actually has to drink Red Bull to calm himself down.)  The early days of Johnson’s campaign have been beset by verbal stumbles and misstatements, such as when Johnson suggested he was running for office because he heard Fox News consultant (and notable prostitute enthusiast) Dick Morris say that “some rich guy” should take Feingold on.  “I told Ron to never utter the words ‘Dick Morris’ in public again,” said Juston.

Clearly, in mid-June, Johnson isn’t exactly a skilled interlocutor, which has become the central focus of his campaign.  “Ron is prone to mistakes,” said one staffer, explaining why they were keeping him away from the media for the time being.

One of the times RonJon’s inexperience as a public speaker became most evident occurred in early June, when the new candidate was speaking in front of a conservative group that should have been predisposed to his way of thinking.  Johnson was asked a question about illegal immigration, and began giving a good answer.

Johnson was telling the group all about how we need to secure the border and enforce the laws on the books.  He could have ended there and been just fine.  Then, when he should have stopped talking, he started asking himself rhetorical questions.  Johnson, not knowing what was going to come out of his mouth next, said, out loud, “of course, that brings up the question – what do we do with the illegal immigrants that are already here?”

Johnson’s staff was horrified.  Clearly, the only reason to ask yourself a hypothetical question out loud is because you probably don’t know the answer.  And not knowing things isn’t exactly a strong resume point when applying to be a U.S. senator.

As a result, Jablonski, Juston, and Ruesch began a “candidate boot camp” for the new candidate.  They locked Johnson into a room for three days in mid-June, firing questions at him.  These quickly became known as the “murder sessions.”   Among the questions Johnson was posed:

  • Should British Petroleum (BP) be required to suspend its dividend payouts to ensure set aside for liabilities or put it into an escrow fund?
  • What do you feel caused the financial crash?
  • When is it appropriate to use the filibuster?
  • Who is responsible for preserving and protecting the Gulf of Mexico?
  • Is Obama a Marxist?
  • Are you the tea party candidate?
  • Are you in favor of a Fair or Flat Tax?
  • Should we audit the Fed?

Both Jablonski and Juston acknowledge that RonJon is a smart guy.  “He’s said ‘every day I wake up, my goal is not to say something that will completely sink my campaign,’” recounts Juston.  “And he’s a very willing learner – he’d sit and study policy papers all day if he could,” he said.  “But he’s also very impatient and sensitive to his own vulnerabilities.  He can’t stand just saying ‘I don’t know,’ when asked a tough question.  It’s our job to teach him that sometimes it’s okay to give a 10 to 15 second answer, then pivot to jobs and the economy.”

Despite Johnson’s willingness to learn, these behind-the-scenes question and answer sessions often got testy.  At times, Johnson’s obduracy ground the meetings to a halt.  He didn’t think he’d be asked many of the questions his staff posed him.  They often had to go back over issues several times.

For instance, staff told him three separate times not to say he’s a better candidate than Dave Westlake because he has more money.  Then, at a candidate forum in Brookfield, Johnson answered a question about why he’d be a better candidate by essentially saying he had more money.

Through the murder sessions, Jablonski says he became convinced Johnson was smart and well-read enough to pull this off.  But Johnson was clearly a neophyte, while Feingold has been at the political game for over 30 years now.  “For eighteen years, taxpayers have been paying Russ Feingold to know everything there is to know about the federal government,” Jablonski says.  “And Ron has to learn it all in, like, two weeks.  Can you name anyone in the state who would be able to step into a situation like that?”

In June, Democrats are betting Johnson can’t.  That is why they’ve put a tracker on him – a paid staffer carrying a video camera, recording Johnson’s every utterance.  Johnson’s staffers say the tracker follows within two feet of Johnson any time he’s in public, which tends to creep out many of the voters RonJon talks to.  All so they can capture a “Macaca moment.”  (In 2006, Virginia Senator George Allen’s campaign was felled by a tracker who caught him on camera calling an Indian-American questioner “Macaca.”)

Johnson’s staff said the Democratic tracker was particularly obnoxious during 4th of July parades in Oshkosh, Franklin, Hartford, Menomonee Falls and Sheboygan, where Johnson tried to walk the parade route and talk to people with his tracker by his side.  Staffers said they thought about giving the tracker some campaign lit and asking him to hand it out, as long as he was going to be following Johnson everywhere.  They openly wondered if they should hire a tracker to follow the tracker, just to show how obnoxious the whole situation was.  (They mention Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker also has a Democratic tracker, but that his tracker is actually a pretty cool guy.)

Over in her own office, Kristin Ruesch has just finished the call with the Wall Street Journal that Juston sent her way earlier in the day.  She’s still waiting for Oshkosh’s charms to present themselves to her, as she’s only been a part of the campaign for a little over a week – having left her position as communications director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin.  In order to stay motivated, she ends each day by reading a short passage from former President Bush advisor Karen Hughes’ book, “Ten Minutes From Normal.”  (Ruesch is on the board of Wisconsin Women in Government, and got to meet Hughes, her hero, just three months ago.)

The call from the Wall Street Journal was to find out whether Johnson has fallen out of favor with the Tea Party movement, which many people believe helped spawn his campaign.  In the early days of his candidacy, RonJon has come out in favor of the Patriot Act, which many libertarians in the right-wing Tea Party movement believe to be an infringement on their civil liberties.  Johnson believes it is necessary for the protection of our country, but several Tea Party groups have opposed his candidacy as a result.  (One such group, the “Wisconsin 9/12 Project,” released a “poll” of its members that showed Dave Westlake beating Johnson 95% to 5% – which likely means exactly 20 people took the poll.)

This is quite a sea change for Johnson, whose first major public appearance as a potential U.S. Senate candidate took place at a Tea Party rally on the Wisconsin Capitol lawn on April 15th.  On Tax Day, Johnson gave an impassioned speech before conservatives and libertarians – at the time, he was just known as “the rich guy who might run against Feingold.”  And it took him a full month after that speech to formally declare his candidacy.

In May, Feingold was more than willing to play up Johnson’s connections to the Tea Party.  In Kentucky, “Tea Party candidate” Rand Paul won a landslide victory in the Republican U.S. Senate primary, and celebrated his victory by announcing that he’d like to see a portion of the 1964 Civil Rights Act repealed.

After the Rand Paul Civil Right imbroglio, Feingold pounced on RonJon.  “[Johnson] refused to say whether he favors the continuation of Social Security and Medicare. He hasn’t even said he supports the Civil Right Act,” Feingold said in a June 16th interviewwith

Feingold also took some shots at Johnson during the senator’s speech to the Wisconsin Democratic Convention on Friday, June 11th.  Feingold said he fought against deregulating the banks in 1999, while “Mr. Johnson was silent.”  Feingold said he fought against President Bush’s policy to let corporate America “run wild,” and, again, “Mr. Johnson was silent.”

The mere mention of these Feingold quote gets Jablonski red-faced with anger.

“So let me get this straight – Ron Johnson is just some guy up in Oshkosh running a business and employing people, and Feingold thinks he should be putting out press releases saying he supports the Civil Rights Act?  What the fuck?  Maybe we should issue a statement accusing Russ Feingold of never saying he opposed child abuse.  Or say ‘Russ Feingold sat idly by while Brett Favre bought a cell phone.’ It’s ridiculous.”

Furthermore, later in the Politico interview, Feingold actually portrayed himself as the Tea Party candidate, pointing out that he agrees with many of their factions on the Patriot Act.  Feingold said Johnson “doesn’t match up with some of their views. He’s trying to use the label of the tea party, but under closer scrutiny, they’re going to realize they don’t match up.”

This puzzled Ruesch.  “So in the same interview, Feingold claims Ron is a racist because he’s a Tea Party member, but then criticizes him for not being enough of a Tea Party member?  Which is it?” she asks.

One of Feingold’s initial shots at Johnson dealt with RonJon’s wealth.  Feingold pointed out that Johnson would be the 70th millionaire in the Senate, and pleaded for a little “economic diversity.”

When Johnson first entered the race, he said he would spend $15 million on the campaign if he had to.  From this figure, political experts tried to extrapolate how much Johnson was actually worth – $100 million?  $200 million?

In fact, Johnson was worth almost exactly what he said he would spend – around $15 million.  When asked by Washington Post columnist George F. Will how much of his personal wealth he would use on the campaign, he said “all of it.”

But Johnson was used to giving away his money.  Between 2005 and 2009, Ron had donated $2.2 million to charity, much of it to Catholic schools in the Oshkosh area.  But the fact that RonJon often gave gift anonymously hurt him when trying to accumulate name ID for his campaign.  “He’s a rich guy in a small town, but nobody knows who he is,” said Juston.

A millionaire challenger is actually something Feingold clearly dreaded.  Part of the famous McCain-Feingold campaign law was a provision that prevented independently wealthy candidates from spending their own money on their campaign.  This so-called “millionaire’s amendment” was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008.

Feingold likely knew that the only way a challenger could catch up with his $5 million warchest was for a millionaire to spend his or her own money.  So he authored a law to keep them from taking him on. But now, thanks to the law being declared unconstitutional, Feingold had a capable millionaire on his doorstep.

While the campaign dealt with these little brush fires, Juston knew these Feingold jabs were tepid compared to what was headed their way as the campaign progresses.  In fact, he was surprised Feingold and his surrogates hadn’t been more aggressive up to that point.  He said that if he were running the Democrats’ campaign at that point, he’d be spending millions to “kill the Johnson campaign in its crib.”  He notes that currently, Johnson “doesn’t have the resources or staff infrastructure to respond to anything big they could throw at us.”

Soon, he would get his wish.


Russ Feingold began his advertising campaign in earnest on July 6th, when he commenced running a 60-second radio ad called “Penny Pincher.”  The ad, which features only Feingold’s own voice, bragged about the senator’s vote against the 2008 bank bailout, saying that in Wisconsin, “we pinch our pennies.”

The ad is emblematic of the way Feingold sees himself – despite being one of the Senate’s most stalwart liberals, he seems to have convinced himself that he is a thrifty protector of taxpayer dollars.  Ads like these essentially serve as political mascara – when he doesn’t like the face he has, Feingold just draws one on that he likes.

In the same ad, Feingold attempts to bolster his credibility as a fiscal conservative by touting his plan to end pay raises for members of Congress – a transparent strategy to run against the body in which he had served for 18 years.

The calculus is easy to follow: in the preceding legislative session, Feingold voted for a number of bills that put Congress’ approval ratings at slightly lower than “athlete’s foot.”  Unable to wriggle out from underneath those votes, Feingold tried a little political jujitsu – vote for wildly unpopular legislation, tarnish the reputation of Congress, then try to score political points by running against the Congress that he aided in casting into disrepute.

The Republican Party of Wisconsin quickly fired back, highlighting Feingold’s vote for the health care bill, which is expected to cost $2.3 trillion over the next ten years, and Feingold’s vote for the $1 trillion “stimulus” bill.  Somehow, they pointed out, Feingold let a few hundred trillion pennies elude his grasp.

Yet this pro-Feingold as served merely as an hors d’oevre to the television campaign the senator had up his sleeve.  On July 13, Feingold began running an ad called “Just Say No,” in which he attacked RonJon for purportedly wanting to drill for oil in the Great Lakes.

The ad, which attempted to cash in on the still-fresh (and still-disastrous) BP oil spill, began like an erectile dysfunction commercial – with serene scenes of beaches and sunsets.  Six seconds in, Feingold appears, talking about how he has “stood up” (pun unintended) to the big oil companies and opposed drilling for oil in the Great Lakes.  As he accuses Ron Johnson of wanting to do that very thing, a graphic of a giant, amorphous oil slick moves from the Gulf of Mexico coast to Lake Michigan, hypothetically blanketing the hypothetical state in hypothetical sludge.

Days before Feingold began running his ad, Johnson had issued a statement saying he unequivocally opposed drilling in the Great Lakes.  But Feingold’s assertion that Johnson supported drilling for oil in Lake Michigan was rooted in an interview Johnson conducted with the website in mid-June.  Johnson was asked:

Wispolitics: Do you want to open up more of the United States – continental United States – to, to drilling? I mean, would you support drilling, like, in the Great Lakes for example if there was oil found there or (unintelligible) using more exploration on Alaska – ANWAR or those kinds of things?

Johnson: Yeah, you know, the bottom line is that, uh, we are an oil-based economy. And we’re really, there’s nothing we’re going to do to get off of that for many, many years.  So I mean we just have to, we have to be realistic and recognize that fact, and you know, I, I, think we have to we have to get the oil where it is but we need to do it responsibly, we need to utilize, you know, American ingenuity and American technology to make sure that we DO do it environmentally, you know, sensitive and safely.

The crux of Feingold’s argument hinged on Johnson’s beginning his answer with the word “yeah.”  When written, it could be construed that Johnson is agreeing with the entire line of questioning.  But the audio clearly shows that RonJon only uttered “yeah,” in the sense of “yeah, I am acknowledging your question.”

This nervous tic of Johnson’s, answering any question posed to him with “yeah,” ended up being a big concern for his staff.  They thought if Feingold was smart, he’d ask Johnson a question like,  “so, you would get rid of social security for seniors, knowing that by making a change, that you believe needs to be done, it would help the next generation have social security in the future, because you support sustainable social security fund, right?”

In this case, simply beginning his answer with the word “yeah” ended up costing Johnson hundreds of thousands of dollars.  RonJon had to write check after check to respond to Feingold’s ad based on his reflexive response.  OnMessage Media, the national firm Johnson was using for his television ads, rushed furiously to get a counter-ad out the door explaining that Johnson never supported drilling in the Great Lakes.

The “drilling in Lake Michigan” attack isn’t one the Johnson campaign had anticipated, so their ad had to be cobbled together from scratch.  Yet within 12 hours, the national ad guys had produced “Stuck in the Mud,” which not only criticized Feingold’s 28 years as a “career politician,” but also accused Feingold of being “the only Great Lakes senator to vote no” on a bill that banned drilling in the lakes.

The vote itself, dug up by one of the campaign’s Wisconsin researchers, was a good catch – only the way it showed up in the ad, it wasn’t true.  Senators Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer of New York both voted against the law, and New York borders both Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.  Thus, Feingold wasn’t the only “Great Lakes senator” to vote no on the bill.

RonJon didn’t like the ad to begin with. And when this mistake was pointed out, it caused some friction between the Wisconsin and Washington D.C. arms of the campaign. (The campaign used various publications and entities that defined “Great Lakes States” differently.  Some included New York and some did not.)

It was the D.C. guys that went ahead with the ad with the disputed fact, but the Wisconsin staffers thought that some of their east coast consultants were ignoring the media fallout.

“They’re not on the ground – their decisions have no impact on their lives,” one staffer complained. “We have to deal with the day-to-day onslaught of an aggressive state media that will blow up any issue it can.”

Three months to go. And soon, the campaign would have more to worry about.

The third week in July, Johnson began a tour of the western half of Wisconsin.  His public appearances in places like Hudson, River Falls, and La Crosse were limited primarily to “Tea Party,” or other like-minded events.  The trip was planned stealthily, in order to avoid Johnson’s Democratic tracker coming along.

When speaking in front of these groups, RonJon often got too comfortable with his message.  While it appeared he dodged a bullet by denying he wanted to drill in Lake Michigan, he soldiered on with his message that BP shouldn’t be vilified.

This caused much consternation with his staff, as they pleaded with him to stay away from anything but the most basic talking points on the whole BP issue. During one closed door meeting, they asked Johnson to tone down the BP rhetoric. “I will not stop defending the producers of America,” he shot back. At one point, he jokingly referred to some his staff as “professional liars” – as he was committed to running the campaign on his own terms.  Johnson made it clear that if he was investing this much money and time, the campaign was going to stand for what he stood for.

To the Tea Party groups, Johnson’s free market rhetoric was like having liquid gold poured directly into their ears.  Johnson believes strongly in the power of free markets and the ability of the private sector to pull Wisconsin out of the recession.  And none of his campaign staffers would necessarily disagree with that philosophical foundation.

But they had a campaign to win.  And as long as the man-made hole in the Gulf of Mexico belched out barrels of liquid disaster, it remained an open wound to Americans.  Yet Johnson bucked his advisors, saying in one interview with a local newspaper, “I’m not anti-big oil.”  (Translation: “I am pro-big oil.”)

As the campaign dodged bullets, Johnson began to think very fondly of his own campaigning prowess. As a result, he began tuning out his advisors even more, saying whatever came to his mind whenever he felt like it.   “He thinks that he can win people over with arguments,” said one staffer.  “That would be fine if this were a debate club – but this is a campaign,” the staffer added.

On this campaign swing, Johnson’s favorite trick was quoting verbatim entire glowing passages of what Milwaukee radio talk show host Charlie Sykes had said about him, despite nobody in Western Wisconsin knowing who Charlie Sykes was. Staff noticed peoples’ eyes glazing over when he began his typical Sykes spiel.

It didn’t help that Johnson was seeking counsel with political figures urging him to push his message forward in the way he saw fit. At one point, Johnson had a discussion with Newt Gingrich, who told him to ignore his advisors, because consultants were prone to mistakes by using the same political tools from the past. (Ironic, as Newt Gingrich has spent decades advising political candidates.)

The denouement of the late July road trip came when RonJon was in Prairie du Chien talking in front of about 20 people at the 3M plant.  The plant’s employees asked him if he was a Viking or a Packer fan.  (Johnson grew up in Minnesota, saying he only visited Wisconsin to drink beer with his friends, since the drinking age was lower.)

When Johnson replied that he was a Packer fan, the employees collectively began to boo him.  After stumbling a little, he began to backtrack, saying that he still rooted for erstwhile Packer-turned Viking quarterback Brett Favre.

Amazingly, Johnson was willing to backtrack on the Minnesota Vikings, but not on BP.

Back in Oshkosh, the campaign staff tried to assess the damage.  During the trip, Johnson had repeatedly defended Big Oil.  He called free trade “creative destruction,” implying that people had to lose their jobs to factories overseas in order to create new jobs here in America.  He had said that “poor people don’t create jobs.”  And Johnson expressed his opinion that people should be able to get their primary health care at Wal-Mart.

Again, on none of these issues was Johnson necessarily wrong.  But the campaign trail isn’t necessarily the best place to introduce ideas to the public that require more than a fifteen second explanation.  On all these things, the public needed to brought along gently.

Staff was most worried about the fact that the Democrats had pulled the tracker off Johnson.  “I’m sure they have enough stuff by now.  We’re creating new material by the day,” one staffer groused.

Part of that new material emerged soon thereafter, when RonJon said he would be selling his stock in BP in order to fund his campaign.  The young chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, Mike Tate, whose initial foray into politics has been slightly less successful than Travis Bickle’s, immediately pounced.

“Ron Johnson has been cheerleading for Big Oil on the campaign trail, saying that now isn’t the time to be beating up on oil companies,” said Tate in a statement. “In each and every case he didn’t say one word about the hundreds of thousands of dollars he had invested in BP and Big Oil. He’s not shooting straight with the voters.”

Some staffers were convinced that while Johnson had done reasonably well before controlled crowds, he wouldn’t go over so well in crowds of mixed ideologies.  “He’s stubborn,” said one staffer.  “He’s not going to shy away from cutting government, and that’s good.  Really smart, but sometimes really stubborn.”

At this point, the behind-the-scenes “murder sessions” have gotten extremely tense.  In fact, it is the campaign staff that is taking most of the barbs.  When staffers suggested to Johnson that he shouldn’t defend the “Bush economic agenda” so stringently, he lashed out at them.

There were instances where they could tell Johnson was trying.  On the morning of July 26th, Johnson was scheduled to do an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio’s Joy Cardin.  In the pre-interview sessions, Johnson kept reflexively saying we need to drill for oil “where it’s safe, like the Gulf of Mexico.”  Staffers kept reminding him that he couldn’t say that on the air, as the public didn’t necessarily consider the Gulf of Mexico to be a safe place to drill.  Johnson nervously kept slipping it into his answers.

Sixteen minutes into the interview, “Larry from Neillsville” called in to ask Johnson if he’s ever told anyone it would be okay to drill for oil in the Great Lakes.  Johnson said no, but went on to point out that America is an oil based economy.  Then he said “we need to drill where it’s safe…” before pausing and moving on to another talking point.  He stopped precisely where he needed to in order to avoid an ongoing story.

Even if his staff thought he was making progress, Johnson had already produced a Thanksgiving feast of cringe-inducing statements.  And Feingold had his knife and fork ready.

On August 10, Feingold began running a radio ad he called “Stuff,” in which he plays an excerpt of RonJon indicating he was open to the “licensing” of guns “like we license cars and stuff.”  The clip was taken months before Johnson had any campaign staff to explain to him that the word “license” to a gun owner is like the word “garlic” to a vampire.

What Johnson meant to say was that he supports allowing permits to carry concealed weapons, which is currently not allowed in Wisconsin. (It is one of the two remaining states that do not allow “concealed carry.”)  But at the time, he didn’t know the political lingo, and misspoke.

Within a day, the Johnson campaign cut a radio ad explaining the mix-up.  The script for the ad was actually written by RonJon himself, as many of the early radio ads were.  It simply features Johnson’s voice, saying “in my first days as a candidate, I used the wrong terms when discussing my strong support for concealed carry rights for gun owners here in Wisconsin.  I’m not a slick politician, and I made a mistake.  It wasn’t the first time, and it probably won’t be the last.”

The Johnson campaign felt they had dodged a bullet, but worried that they couldn’t keep playing the “I’m just a confused new guy” card.  “That’s going to be us from now on,” said one staffer.

However, Feingold’s gun rights attack on Johnson seemed a curious one, and exposes a small window into his view of himself.  Nobody in Wisconsin seriously believed Feingold was somehow more of a defender of gun rights than the conservative Johnson.  But Feingold actually thought the “maverick” tag he has hoisted upon himself would be enough to convince people.  Soon, the ad faded away without any real effect.

Johnson’s staff felt they had turned a corner by the time mid-August rolled around.  None of Feingold’s attacks appeared to be sticking to RonJon, and their candidate was learning to smooth out the message a little.

Ruesch’s life also got easier, as the campaign hired a new press secretary.  Sara Sendek had come to work for Johnson after working on former congressman Pete Hoekstra’s unsuccessful campaign to become Michigan’s governor.  Ruesch and Sendek hit it off immediately, moving in to an unfurnished, run down apartment together.

On Friday, August 13th (which would retroactively become ominous), the team began prepping Johnson for his Monday editorial board visit with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin’s largest newspaper.  The prep sessions were broken off into two-hour segments, and a wide spectrum of issues was discussed.  Staffers lobbed questions at RonJon for a total of 10 hours in preparation for the interview.

On the morning of August 17th, Johnson and his staff made their way into the room with the Journal Sentinel editorial board.  Once the interview began, Johnson dutifully soldiered through questions about Iraq, gun rights, health care, and tax cuts with characteristically laconic answers.

Then he was asked about global warming.

Johnson, who had previously characterized theories of man-made global warming as “crazy,” and “lunacy,” told the editorial board that he absolutely did not believe in the theory of man’s role in causing climate change.

“It’s far more likely that it’s just sunspot activity or just something in the geologic eons of time,” he said, adding that be believed excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere “gets sucked down by trees and helps the trees grow.”

Naturally, the headline in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel the next day read “Sunspots Are Behind Climate Change, Johnson Says.”  After an hour of being posed dozens of questions, the paper had decided Johnson’s enthusiasm for sunspots was the show-stealer.

At no point in the 10 hours of interview prep were sunspots discussed.  Staff was perplexed as to where it even came from – maybe Johnson had once read a book that briefly mentioned it and it just popped into his head.

After the article broke, the campaign was more worried about the second part of Johnson’s answer than they were about sunspots.  “Excess carbon gets sucked down by the trees and helps them grow,” said one staffer.  “He’s essentially saying pollution is good for the environment.  Think that’ll sell?”

Of course, Feingold immediately attacked Johnson for his stance on man’s role in global warming.  But in the same new article, Feingold made an equally puzzling assertion in an attempt to prove man-made global warming existed.  “Do you notice the heat lately, my friend?” he told a Journal Sentinel reporter.

Obviously, if Ron Johnson had argued that global warming didn’t exist because he had to wear his fleece vest a few days extra last year, the paper would have destroyed him.  But Feingold’s evidence – that it’s hot in Wisconsin in August – seems to be scientifically bullet-proof.  Just stick your finger in the air to see if the world is on the verge of eradication.  (If Feingold had been caught soliciting a prostitute, he’d be hailed by the newspapers as “creating jobs.”)

News of Johnson’s views on global warming went national.  Jon Stewart joked on The Daily Show that Russ Feingold was going to lose “to some guy who thinks global warming is caused by sunspots and toaster ovens.”  Basements all over the country were illuminated with lefty blog posts mocking Johnson.

Sendek, three days into her new job as press secretary, was cast right into the middle ofl’affaire sunspot.    “Welcome to the campaign – our candidate just said pollution is good for trees. Have at it.”

Within days she was sending reporters emollient e-mails attempting to regulate the message.  “It has been misconstrued to say that Ron believes sunspots are the sole cause for global warming” she wrote.  “He  has never made a statement that says sunspots are unequivocally to blame for global warming.”

Of course, amid the charges and accusations, one issue flew under the radar: do sunspots really have anything to do with global warming?  The Journal Sentinel followed up with a respected researcher that said they do, but less so than greenhouse gases.

So it’s not as if Johnson was completely off base.  For instance, he didn’t say global warming was caused by dolphin tears.  But campaigns aren’t necessarily set up to introduce new, unknown facts into the public discourse.  As P.J. O’Rourke has said, in the American political system, “you’re only allowed to have real ideas if it’s absolutely guaranteed you can’t win an election.”

While the Johnson campaign braced for calamity, the most unexpected thing happened:


Polls had shown the race to be a virtual dead heat since May.  And even with all the hits Johnson had taken over the past two months, it appeared to still be a toss-up.  A Rasmussen poll taken on August 24th, one week after the sunspot story broke, had Johnson up 47% to 46%.  Only 5% of voters were undecided, with more than two months to go.  Johnson’s missteps may have been pulling the campaign in one way, but the nation’s Tea Party zeitgeist was pulling the polls in the other direction.

In fact, the national media began to take notice.  In late August, the New York Times ran a feature on the Feingold-Johnson race, calling it a “bellweather” for national G.O.P. hopes.  It cast Johnson in a very positive light, even when Johnson was asked to comment on his frequent misstatements.

“I’m used to being in business, when you have a half-hour and you can hash things out, you can wax philosophical about things,” Johnson was quoted as saying. “It’s pretty hard to do in a political campaign when someone says, ‘What’s your position on this?’ And you get a microphone thrown in your mouth. That’s difficult.”

The conservative Weekly Standard was one of many right-leaning publications to begin featuring the “Ayn Rand-loving, pro-life Lutheran, plastics manufacturer from Oshkosh.”  An article published on August 9th discussed RonJon’s public speaking style, saying “Johnson is personable and rolls off facts, figures, and anecdotes with ease when discussing the issues.”

Just as Feingold attempted to use his greatest weakness (being a career politician) to his own benefit, the Johnson campaign tried to pivot and make light of his occasional blunders.

On August 24th, Ron began running a television ad called “The Johnson Family,” in which his two daughters, wife, and son all extolled RonJon’s virtues.  The grown children are intentionally made to look as if they are reading implausible compliments off of cue cards, before the music stops and Johnson admits to not being a career politician, nor are his kids professional actors.

The ad, written by Brad Todd at OnMessage Media, was an attempt at using humor to diffuse many of Johnson’s public statements.  (The bar for a political ad to be considered “humorous” is pretty low – like being called the prettiest girl at a Rush concert.)  But the ad itself, aided by the hundreds of thousands of dollars Johnson spent to air it, helped soften his public image.

On the other hand, Feingold had been making news with his television ads – but not in the way he intended.  In early August, Feingold produced an ad called “Homegrown,” in which he tries to make the case that the stimulus plan he supported actually created jobs.  The ad features a woman named “Elizabeth Ackland” attaching a new nameplate to her cubicle, to represent someone recently hired.

The Johnson campaign quickly scrambled to point out that there is no “Elizabeth Ackland” currently living in Wisconsin.  It may seem like a minor point – campaigns use actors and fake names all the time – but it provided Johnson with a legitimate talking point: Russ Feingold couldn’t find a single living human being that benefited from the stimulus, so he had to make one up.

In mid-August, Feingold began running an ad called “On Our Side,” in which he proclaims his allegiance to “regular folks” over special interests. Yet one of the “regular folks” featured in the ad was a lobbyist for the AFL-CIO. According to Project Vote Smart, Feingold had a 94% rating from the AFL-CIO until 2009, which doesn’t exactly buttress his “maverick” persona.

But that didn’t keep Feingold from going on offense, even if Johnson was sharpening his message.

On the morning of August 30th, Johnson was set to conduct an interview with the Wisconsin Radio Network.  When the radio interview started, Johnson began talking about entrepreneur Steve Wynn moving jobs to China.  “He’s also creating resorts in Macau in China, communist China. And his point is, the level of uncertainty, the climate for business investment is far more certain in communist China then it is in the U.S. here,” he told the host. “We’ve created such a high level of uncertainty in this economy because, quite honestly because of the agenda that Senator Feingold represents.”

After the interview, Ruesch counseled against mentioning Wynn, thinking it would only invite more questions. Dissatisfied, Johnson asked for Jablonski’s second opinion.  Jack told Johnson he tentatively agreed with Ruesch.

Of course, saying jobs are moving to China is normally an innocuous observation.  But the Wisconsin State Journal published an article about Johnson’s statements, wondering if “RoJo” was a “big fan of China.”  Obviously, had Feingold accurately noted that jobs were moving to Hong Kong, he’d be hailed as standing up for working people.  When Johnson did it, it was as if he had pledged allegiance to Chairman Mao.

Wisconsin State Journal reporters tweeted a link to the story, saying the story “Could go national.”  Surely, they were hoping it did.  This suddenly emerged as a theme for Johnson – not only do politicians and staffers use campaigns as a ladder to move up, but members of the media do, too.  If a reporter could manufacture a “gotcha” moment with a gaffe-prone candidate like Johnson, their name could be all over the national blogs.

The day after the story “broke,” Feingold was a guest on “The Ed Show” on MSNBC.  He told host Ed Schultz that Johnson was “coming unraveled” before he responded to Johnson’s comments on China.  “Here’s a guy who claims to be for freedom, who claims to be for free enterprise and jobs, who’s praising the communist Chinese system over our system,” Feingold said.  “That’s not going to play well with the people of Wisconsin.”

 After watching the interview, Jablonski laughed.  “Well, I guess ‘Rojo’ is Spanish for ‘red,’” he chuckled.

Once again, however, Feingold’s swipe failed to connect.  While the last Rasmussen poll, taken August 24, had the race a virtual tie, internal state GOP polling had Johnson pulling slightly ahead.  According to the poll, Johnson was overperforming in traditionally Democratic areas, and slightly underperforming in strong Republican districts.  For instance, Johnson was only up 51% to 46% in the Milwaukee suburbs, where he was almost certain to win by twice that margin.

“Jesus Christ,” said the characteristically pessimistic Jablonski.  “We might actually win this thing.”


The day after Labor Day, September 7th, is colder than usual this year in Wisconsin.  The farm houses around Oshkosh are already framed with trees dappled orange and red, and one can already see his or her breath. (Using Russ Feingold’s logic, this is proof that global warming doesn’t exist.)

The parking lot at the Johnson headquarters on Oregon Street is now full of cars, as the campaign’s statewide staff has grown to 51 employees.  Visitors are greeted by a dog named Bourbon, a Shar Pei owned by Kirsten Hopkins, Johnson’s principal fundraiser.

Numerous staffers now occupy the rows of cubicles in the headquarters.  They all walk with pieces of paper in their hands, as if the fate of the campaign hinged on whatever information they are carrying.  Johnson’s kids, Ben and Jenna, also working on the campaign, wander the halls.  They are easily recognizable, given their ubiquitous position on televisions all over the state.  Given, they’re not exactly “stars” per se, but this is Oshkosh, Wisconsin – they might as well be Tom Cruise and Miley Cyrus.

Johnson is sitting at a large wooden desk in his office, getting ready to do a national interview with Sirius XM Satellite Radio.  Sendek sits across from him with a pad in her hand.  As he discusses pension issues with the host, he scribbles a drawing representing a sun, with lines shooting out of it.

The interview seems to be the standard Ron Johnson interview – he throws out statistics, while seeming a little short of breath.  His hands shake a little.  But then, Johnson’s asked a question about health care, and the whole interview dynamic shifts.

He begins discussing his daughter Carey, who was born with a heart deformation 27 years ago.  At the time, her specific disease was considered to be 75 percent fatal.  Johnson went from doctor to doctor, searching for one that could perform the procedure to save his little girl’s life.

And it is golden.  Suddenly, by talking about something from his own experience, Johnson has come to life.  Like flipping a switch, he has gone from being a candidate to a dad.

After the interview, we talk about some of his verbal flubs.  I ask him about sunspots.  He shrugs.  “Sometimes you just say things,” he says.  I ask him if he thinks reporters are purposely trying to trip him up now.  “Absolutely,” he answers.

He says his staff has been working with him on committing errors of o-mission rather than errors of co-mmission.  Nobody will ever criticize you for something you don’t say, they have told him.  But he is now aware that things he does say can cost him a million dollars’ worth of ads.

The conflict in Johnson is evident – he got into the race because of his disgust with smooth-talking politicians.  But now, he’s struggling to become a plausible politician himself.  People say they want an outsider, but once a candidate gets too outside, it harms their brand.  (Ask Republican Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell, whose past statements forced her to cut a television ad publicly denying she is a witch.)

Most of September would be spent raising money, issuing new television ads, prepping Johnson for the debates in October, and fending off Feingold’s attacks.  But one minor inconvenience stood in the way: RonJon had to win the primary on September 14th.

To most political observers, Johnson’s primary victory over Dave Westlake was a mere formality.  Westlake had run a campaign with virtually no money – he sold blaze orange t-shirts to raise cash, and posted internet videos of himself giving impassioned speeches about liberty.  In these videos, Westlake very much resembled Wisconsin native Chris Farley’s famous “Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker” character.  And it wouldn’t surprise any voter if Westlake himself were living in a van down by the river.

During the campaign, Westlake had criticized Johnson for not being sufficiently right-wing, hammering him particularly on RonJon’s support for the Patriot Act.  But Westlake’s credibility was damaged irreparably when the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel unearthed some of the details of Westlake’s business dealings.  (The Johnson campaign denies they had anything to do with leaking the details.)

Westlake was being sued by a former business partner, Fawaad Khan, over a business they owned together called High IQ, LLC.  Private e-mails between Westlake and Khan released to the public not only showed Westlake to be whiny and evasive, but exposed his disastrous business plan.  Basically, Westlake had taken out government loans to pay himself a salary while he traveled the state campaigning for U.S. Senate, instead of using those funds to benefit the business.  Thus, the “real conservative” candidate was depending on government aid to run his campaign.

It’s not reassuring to voters when it becomes clear someone is running for office simply because they are virtually unemployable anywhere else.  So on election night, Johnson beat Westlake by a USA versus Angola Olympic basketball Dream Team margin – 85% to 10%.  Given the nature of polls –  for instance, 10% of Americans think Dick Cheney secretly planned the 9-11 attacks – the Johnson campaign considered this to be a virtual sweep of Republican voters.

While the primary was a mere formality, the news following September 14th proved to be a bit of a surprise.  A Rasmussen poll conducted the day after the primary showed Ron Johnson up 51% to 44% on Feingold.  The campaign had expected a post-primary bump, but not that kind of bump.

Seeing his numbers begin to slip, Feingold began to step up his attacks on Johnson.  The first came in the form of a television ad Feingold ran featuring news footage from a Madison television station that investigated whether Johnson had gotten government assistance to start his business 31 years ago.  It includes a clip of Johnson saying he never lobbied for “special treatment or a government payment,” then shows headlines indicating Johnson received $4 million in “government” loans to aid his business.

At issue were a tool called “Industrial Revenue Bonds, (IRBs),” which grant a business a lower interest rate for loans which the business has to secure from the private underwriting market.  There is no government guarantee, no government money, and the taxpayers are never at risk – and Johnson’s company paid it all back on time.

In order to counter this attack, Johnson’s campaign contacted two former Wisconsin secretaries of commerce, Bill McCoshen (who served under Governor Tommy Thompson) and Dick Leinenkugel (whose service under Democratic Governor Jim Doyle killed his own chances of running for the GOP senate nomination Johnson eventually won.)  The two secretaries wrote a letter pointing out that IRBs aren’t “government aid,” as Feingold’s ad suggested.  In fact, the program urges government to get out of the way to provide more business growth – a position on which Johnson had been wholly consistent.

This was a Feingold charge for which the campaign had been prepared.  In fact, it was one of many potential Feingold attacks that Johnson had anticipated.  While it’s much publicized when a candidate hires a private investigator to dig up dirt on his or her opponent, more often a candidate will hire someone to investigate his or herself.  This gives a candidate an idea of what negative information their opponent is likely to use against them.  Johnson’s campaign did just this, so they already had a good list of the attacks Feingold was likely to launch.

In fact, the tricky part of running a campaign isn’t knowing what will be used against you, it is guessing when those things will be employed by your opponent.  Way back in July, Jablonski assumed Feingold’s next negative attack on Johnson would be on free trade issues.  That attack came, but not until mid-September, when Feingold began running ads accusing Johnson of supporting international trade agreements like NAFTA, which Feingold said cost Wisconsin 64,000 jobs.

In late September, word got to the Johnson campaign that Johnson would be attacked for his involvement in the Catholic school system in the Green Bay and Fox Valley areas.  For years, Johnson had donated millions of dollars to various Catholic schools in Northeastern Wisconsin, despite not even being Catholic himself.

When a bill came before the Legislature to lift the statute of limitations for people who want to accuse the church of sex crimes, Johnson opposed it.  He thought that it could make the very system he helped keep alive a magnet for lawsuits that could bankrupt it.  While he supported tough criminal penalties for pedophiles, he didn’t want to see all the good he was trying to do torn apart by 30-year old lawsuits.  He also worried that such “window” legislation could harm other non-profits like the Boys and Girls Clubs.

On September 28th, a publication called “Veterans Today” published the video of Johnson’s testimony against the bill before the Wisconsin Legislature.  In the video, a bearded Ron Johnson, looking like a skinny Wolf Blitzer, reads through his objections to the bill.  A bill, incidentally, on which the Democratic-controlled Legislature agreed with Johnson.  It never passed either house.

Nevertheless, the Johnson campaign took proactive measures to get ahead of the story.  The left-wing blogosphere (where spelling and proper English are treated as if they were prisoners in Guantanamo Bay) pounced immediately, posting “Ron Johnson supports pedophiles” entries everywhere.  On Keith Olbermann’s MSNBC show (which The Weekly Standard’s Matt Labash described as “the sound of a man having unprotected sex with the sound of his own voice”), Olbermann had an adult victim of pedophilia on the air to discuss his disgust with Johnson.

But Johnson’s campaign was ready.  They issued a fact sheet on the allegations that Ruesch had actually drafted back in June while working at the state Republican Party.  Johnson called for full disclosure by the Green Bay diocese in any ongoing investigations.  Calls were made to media outlets all over the state to explain why this was a non-story.

And it worked.  A story on the subject by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigative reporter Dan Bice rumored to be following the allegations never materialized.  (Bice had done an article on the issue two months earlier.)  The story faded, at least for the time being.

But it didn’t mean the campaign was out of the proverbial woods just yet – there was still material out there that could be used against Johnson.  Running a campaign is very much like the movie Carlito’s Way – just when you think you’ve escaped, Bennie Blanco from the Bronx returns from the past to take you out.

And the left-wing blogs kept trying.  Their next charge was that Johnson had once hired a sex offender in his plastics plant.  Never mind that in any other circumstance, these same liberals would be all for giving ex-cons a second chance at employment.  But in Wisconsin, it is actually against the law to take someone’s arrest or conviction record into account when deciding to hire them.  If Johnson hadn’t hired this guy, he would have been breaking the law – and the blogs would use that against him.  But because he did hire this man, feeling he had been rehabilitated, that was then used against him.

Again, none of the attacks stuck.  A Rasmussen poll taken on September 29th had Johnson up by an unbelievable 54% to 42% margin.  The day before, RonJon had issued two new ads – one featuring Johnson standing in front of a white dry-erase board writing down the number of lawyers that currently serve in the Senate (57) as opposed to the number of accountants (1) and manufacturers (0).  In the initial shoot for the ad, the numbers were wrong, so the ad had to be re-shot and some CGI blurring added to correct the numbers on the board.

The second ad was slightly more negative in tone.  (Campaign rule: if your opponent is running a negative ad, it’s called a “negative ad.”  If your campaign running a negative ad, it’s called a “contrast ad.”)  The ad criticized Feingold’s vote for the health care bill, noting that before the bill passed, 55% of Wisconsinites opposed a “government takeover of health care.”  (The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel eventually labeled the entire ad as “false,” as they incredibly didn’t believe the bill amounted to “government healthcare.”)

It wasn’t a hard-core negative ad, though – the health care bill is fair game under any circumstance.  Jablonski said that, given Johnson’s big lead, the plan was to stay positive.  “Even if they start running ads with video of a fake bearded Ron Johnson sex offending,” he said.

In that vein, the campaign cut an ad with Johnson and his daughter, Carey, discussing her heart problem at birth.  But it needed to be re-shot, because they felt Johnson didn’t deliver his lines with enough emotion.  The goal was to get a positive ad on the air featuring Carey, who “presents well on TV.”  (Campaign-speak translation: “she’s attractive.”)  Eventually, they shelved the ad altogether.

Yet Johnson’s ads – simple, yet effective – were the envy of campaigns around the country.  Brad Todd, of OnMessage Media, said when producing an ad, his competition isn’t the other candidate – it is the ad that airs directly before and directly after his campaign ad.  “What you produce has to hold a viewer’s attention and look like it belongs will all the other ads on the air,” he said.

Soon, Johnson’s measured, disciplined campaign was starting to get national recognition.  At the Washington Post’s “The Fix” blog, Chris Cillizza said Johnson “has run one of the best — if not the best — Senate campaigns this cycle.”  The Oshkosh Northwestern, Johnson’s hometown paper, called his campaign staff “brilliant.”  The Washington times said RonJon, “aided by a smart and savvy campaign staff, has refined his message and appearance.”

But Feingold wasn’t helping his own case, either, stumbling into a few uncharacteristic missteps.  For instance, one of the senator’s favorite talking points during the campaign was that he has been outspent in every one of his Senate races.  For this oft-repeated claim, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s “Politifact” feature gave Feingold a “Pants on Fire,” rating as he significantly outspent challenger Tim Michels in 2004.

For weeks, Feingold had said he would not be attending a campaign rally held partly for his benefit by President Obama on September 29th.  At the very last minute, Feingold appeared at the rally, leading to suspicion that he had been hectored by the White House to attend.

In an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board, Feingold complained about Johnson’s insistence that the 18-year senator was a “career politician.”  “I think it’s a pretty sad thing for our society when somebody runs a campaign telling young people, ‘Don’t you dare go into public service, or you’re going to be mocked,’” Feingold told the board.  Of course, it was Feingold that, within weeks of joining the race, called Ron Johnson a racist and a communist sympathizer, and had fabricated his positions on numerous issues.  So exactly who was keeping people from entering politics?  Did Feingold expect a telethon for three-term U.S. senators?

Feingold even bumbled some of his television ads.  On October 1st, he began running an ad bragging about his vote for the poisonous health care bill – a bill that, according to Rasmussen, 57% of Americans wanted repealed (46% “strongly.”)  At the end of the ad, two women urge Ron Johnson to “keep your hands off my health care.”  As if people couldn’t figure out that a government takeover of health care is the ultimate “hands on” approach to medical care.  From watching the ad, one would get the impression that it was Ron Johnson who wanted to take over health care – in fact, it was obviously the exact opposite.

But that paled in comparison to Feingold’s next TV ad blunder.  On October 5th, the Feingold campaign ran an ad accusing the Johnson campaign on “dancing in the endzone” too early.  The video featured a clip of one of the most notorious moments in recent Wisconsin sports history – then-Minnesota Viking Randy Moss mooning the crowd in a playoff victory over the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.  (In an odd twist, Moss was traded back to the Vikings from the New England Patriots the very day the ad began running.)

As soon as the ad began running, the Johnson campaign sprung into action, personally calling the National Football League offices.  Since anyone who has ever watched an NFL game knows that footage of the games is copyrighted material, the Johnson campaign suspected Feingold hadn’t gotten clearance to use the clip in his ad.  As they soon found out, the clip was used without permission.

That very afternoon, Feingold had to pull the ad off the air via NFL directive.  Perhaps most ironic, however, was the fact that here was Russ Feingold – who had made a career of telling people what was permissible to put in television ads – having to cancel his own ad for using illegal material.

Feingold’s missteps helped Johnson stay ahead in early October: a poll released by an organization called “We the People” showed RonJon up 49% to 41% on October 4th.  But that didn’t necessarily mean all was well with the campaign staff.

In fact, the pressure to win was now causing some significant fissures within the staff.  This is common with campaigns – by the end, people who have been trapped in a headquarters for months can barely stand the sight of one another.  But amongst the Johnson campaign staff, these divisions ran deep.

Many of the staff had to move desks in the Johnson headquarters to avoid seeing staffers from other departments.  Some staffers appeared to be more worried about positioning themselves for a job with Senator Johnson than doing the work they had been assigned.  There was talk of firing a number of the more troublesome campaign workers, but it was decided that, with a month to go, there’s no way the campaign could train replacements.

The campaign was also fending off political consultants trying to work their way into the operation.  Three months earlier, when Johnson was a longshot, the campaign had struggled to find help.  Now, with the polls showing RonJon well ahead, consultants began to descend like locusts, offering their advice on how to run the campaign.  Undoubtedly, these consultants would then pad their resumes, taking credit for having “worked” on the expected stunning Johnson win.  If victory has a thousand fathers, the Johnson campaign was quickly becoming the Maury Povich Show of campaigns.

The campaign was also fending off pressure from national politicians to allow them to come to Wisconsin to campaign on Johnson’s behalf.  Seeing as how Johnson was running as the anti-politician, a decision was made to turn almost all of them down.  “You name the national Republican figure, and we told them there were better places they could be,” said one staffer.

Some state representatives and senators were calling regularly to offer their directives.  One state senator called to tell the campaign they could improve Johnson’s numbers by buying an ad in a political leaflet printed in a Milwaukee-area conservative activist’s basement.  Other state legislators, many of whom had never run a competitive race, called on a daily basis to offer their advice.

Perhaps the most unexpected time-consuming task was given to the campaign by school teachers.  All over the state, teachers were assigning their students the task of asking a senate candidate a question.  As these requests came flooding in, staffers had to handle each of them individually.  (They were never signed as if they were coming from Johnson; they were always attributed to the staff member handling it.)

But even with all of these sudden pressures from the outside world, the campaign had to internally deal with their most daunting task of all:

Johnson had to get ready to debate of the U.S. Senate’s most capable orators, Russ Feingold.


Ron Johnson’s debate preparation had actually begun in earnest more than a month before the first scheduled matchup with Feingold on October 8th.  Feingold, likely thinking he could handle the newcomer Johnson fairly easily, had proposed six debates, Johnson agreed to three.

Mark Graul, who had run Congressman Mark Green’s unsuccessful race for Wisconsin Governor in 2006, was brought in to help with the debate preparations.  (Ruesch said she was pretty sure they were paying Graul with Arby’s coupons.)

Initially, a larger team was in the room during debate prep, but the more people in the room, the more Johnson bristled.  So attendance in debate prep was scaled back to only the essential staffers.

Early on, there were rumors that the campaign would get national conservative darling Congressman Paul Ryan to play the part of Feingold during debate sessions.  In his youth, Ryan’s father actually worked as an attorney in the same Janesville building as Feingold’s father.  This would have been quite a scene – seeing a nationally recognized free market stalwart like Paul Ryan strenuously arguing for higher taxes and greater government involvement in health care.

But Ryan’s schedule couldn’t accommodate the commitment.  Instead, the campaign enlisted the help of attorney Chris Mohrman, a former member of Governor Tommy Thompson’s administration.  To play the part of Russ Feingold, Mohrman returned from Washington D.C., where he was working for a national virtual schools organization at the time.

From the beginning, the campaign knew their strategy for the debates: just don’t make any news.  Senate debates are universally watched by no one – you can’t win a campaign by performing well, but you can certainly damage your campaign by saying something that can be used in a television ad against you.

In other words, in a debate against Russ Feingold, a tie is a win.

Johnson and his staff spent the better half of September locked in a room, practicing his debate tactics.  It didn’t always go well.  At times, Johnson was irritated and irascible, objecting to the questions he was asked.  Sometimes, he would throw his papers up the air and walk out of the room.  His staffers initially sensed that he was mad at himself for not knowing more of the material, but they eventually figured out he was just as mad at them for not preparing him well enough.

Johnson encouraged a more inclusive method of debate prep, where he could sit around a table with his staffers and discuss issues before distilling what he learned into usable sound bites.  He complained that his staff continued to “murderboard” him. (Johnson uses the term “murderboard” like a terrorist would use the term “waterboard,” and it isn’t coincidental.)

During one particularly grueling session, Johnson and staffers debated a detail regarding Social Security.  It was important that Johnson get the Social Security issue down pat, as it is one of the bedrock issues Democrats use to demagogue Republicans.

In the days before the debate, Feingold had telegraphed where he would attack Johnson during the debate.  He’d go after Johnson’s lack of specifics on economic issues, and his lack of a plan to turn the economy around.  The campaign staff worked hard to give Johnson a rejoinder to this line of criticism.

Feingold clearly would also deem himself the “underdog” in the race, so campaign staff prepared Johnson to say Russ was the underdog only because he had made himself so through his bad votes.  “If the A&W Root Beer Bear was in the race, he’d call himself the underdog, too,” cracked Jablonski.  Sadly, the campaign opted not to put this line in Johnson’s preparation materials.

Johnson himself had watched tapes of Feingold’s previous debates in order to prepare.  The campaign saw how aggressive the senator was in criticizing challenger Tim Michels during the debates in 2004.  If Feingold was that truculent when he was up in the polls by double digits – how much would he attack being substantially behind?

Adding pressure to Johnson’s first debate was the reputation he was earning as a “no show” candidate.  Word was spreading that Johnson’s campaign was keeping him away from public appearances to avoid the gaffes that plagued his campaign during its early days.  Don Walker of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote an article complaining that Johnson wouldn’t release his daily calendar to the media.  (Feingold wouldn’t release his calendar, either, but that fact didn’t seem to fit the media narrative that Johnson was avoiding public appearances.)

Thus, given his limited appearances in September, people were anxious to see how the new candidate would match up against one of the Senate’s most skilled debaters.  But debate preparations were still going poorly.  As of three days before the Friday night event, one staffer said that debate prep was “off the rails.”

As Friday approached, it was still unclear to staff how the debate would go.  It was possible, given Johnson’s willingness to make fun of his own gaffes, the public would be more willing to forgive any misstatements he made.  In 2008, the public’s expectations of Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin were so low, many people actually believe she debated rival Joe Biden to a draw.  Whether RonJon managed expectations to a similar degree was yet to be seen.

In the final debate prep before the big show, staff said they thought Johnson wasn’t nervous at all.  One staffer said Johnson looked “terrified” before he left Oshkosh, but another said he was more “stressed” than afraid.  The grueling debate prep had sapped him of his energy.  He was accompanied to the Milwaukee debate by Ruesch, Sendek and Juston.  Johnson took a nap in the RV on the hour and a half drive south.

When they arrived at the television studio on the Milwaukee Area Technical College campus, Ruesch took her place in the holding room, where she began to prepare press releases.  The other staff were in the studio, with Sendek tweeting the proceedings.

The debate began with moderator John Laabs explaining the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association (WBA) preference that candidates not use video of the debate in political ads against their opponent.  Johnson agreed to the policy; predictably, Feingold did not.  (Just that day, an independent group began running ads against GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker, using footage from his earlier WBA debate.)

And then it began.  Even if a candidate has millions of dollars to spend, the best staff in the world, and a lead in the polls, debates are a different world.  It’s just two candidates, two microphones, and dozens of people watching at home.  There’s nowhere to hide.

Feingold was first to give his opening statement.  He began by mentioning that he was born and raised in Wisconsin – a subtle shot at Johnson’s Minnesota upbringing.  Feingold stressed his independence on trade agreements and the Wall Street bailout.  As expected, he criticized Johnson’s lack of specifics on issues.

Then, it the time everyone was waiting for.  Johnson began his opening statement, explaining that he had no political aspirations, and that running for Senate was not his life’s ambition.  In an unexpected twist, he actually took some direct shots at Feingold, criticizing his vote for the health care bill and for expanding the nation’s debt.  Johnson finished by emphasizing his status as a potential “citizen-legislator.”

As the questions began, Johnson looked nervous, but was hitting his talking points.  On a question about health care, he stumbled a little before inevitably getting to his birth story about his daughter.  In his answer to a question about energy, he used the phrase “exploit our oil resources,” which he had worked to avoid in debate prep.  But it was a minor point.

When both candidates were asked about global warming, Johnson inexplicably defended his position with regard to sunspots.  Staff pleaded with him to drop that talking point, but he soldiered on.  “He just can’t help himself,” said one staffer.

About halfway through, one thing became evident: Ron Johnson was actually hanging in there with Feingold.  In fact, he was landing a few punches of his own.  This risk seemed to pay off, as Feingold wasn’t able to refute many of Johnson’s criticisms.  As Omar says inThe Wire, “if you take a shot at the king, you best not miss.”

Feingold wasn’t necessarily helping his own cause.  He jabbed repeatedly at Johnson, but did so with an oleaginous grin, as if he were a traveling salesman pitching mustache wax from the back of a truck.  At one point, he criticized Johnson for agreeing with President Obama on some issue, but disagreeing with Obama on others.  In the very next line, Feingold bragged that he agreed with President Bush on immigration reform.

At one point, Johnson predicted Feingold would accuse him of wanting to “privatize” Social Security, and pre-butted the accusation.  Predictably, Feingold went right on to accuse him of wanting to privatize Social Security.

Even more oddly, Feingold resurrected his trial balloon from June, in which he appealed to Tea Party members for their votes.  Again, he tried to make the case that he is truly the Tea Party candidate, given his vote against the Patriot Act – which demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the Tea Party movement.  Yet it was telling that while once Feingold publicly derided Tea Partiers, he was now attempting to court them.

Afghanistan was one of the issues Johnson’s staff thought would give him the most trouble, but he navigated it smoothly.  Same with stem cells, which could have been problematic had Johnson not handled it as well as he did.

Throughout the debate, Johnson got more comfortable.  But he looked nervous.  To television viewers at home, it appeared as if a bead of sweat had run down his forehead and across the bridge of his nose.  Had he not already been gaunt, he probably would have lost five pounds in perspiration.

When the one hour debate ended, it was clear: Johnson didn’t exactly win on style points, but more than held his own on substance.  It was like a naked steak on a plate – lacking in presentation, but to the Johnson campaign, ultimately satisfying.

While Johnson could decompress a little after the Friday night debate, that relaxation was short-lived.  There were only two days until the second debate, to be held in Wausau on Monday.

While it would make for a grueling four-day stretch, it worked to Johnson’s advantage to get two of the debates out of the way in such a short period.  Plus, the second debate would fortuitously be held on the same night that Brett Favre was returning to play his former New York Jets team, after he was accused of sending cell phone pictures of his penis to a former female Jets employee.  Given Wisconsin’s fascination with the former Packer legend, the number of viewers for the second debate would make the first debate look like “Dancing with the Stars.”

Johnson’s campaign immediately began reviewing film of the Milwaukee debate, breaking it down Vince Lombardi-style.  In retrospect, they understood how eerily dead-on Mohrman’s portrayal of Feingold in debate prep had been.  Not only had he nailed Feingold’s rhythm and inflection, he actually predicted the actual companies Feingold would cite when bragging about stimulus jobs created.

Johnson’s team scrambled to come up with rejoinders to some of Feingold’s lines in the debate.  They needed something for Johnson to say when Feingold pulled an obscure issue from out of nowhere.  For instance, in the first debate, Feingold mentioned a New Zealand trade compact that he said would hurt the dairy industry in Wisconsin.  Johnson had never heard of the compact, and his response was a little disjointed.

In between the debates, a story ran on that gave readers a glimpse of Johnson’s displeasure with overly “handled” on the campaign trail.  “So he watches his words, ignoring the fact that he’s already making the trade-offs conventional politicians make to win office,” wrote Jim VandeHei, a Wisconsin native. “It will be different once and if he wins, he promises. Then, his true feelings can take voice.”  (Translation: you think the shit I say is crazy now, wait until I’m elected!”)

The second debate itself wasn’t as pressure-packed as the Milwaukee debate, as it wasn’t televised anywhere outside the Wausau area.  The format was more conducive to discussion between the candidates, and that showed up in a volatile discussion about campaign finance reform nearly halfway through the debate.

Several days earlier, Feingold’s campaign had accepted over $600,000 from the liberal group  This was the same group that in 2007 had run a full page ad in the New York Times calling the American Commanding General in Iraq, David Petraeus, “General Betray-Us.”  (Since Petraus was picked by President Obama to lead the American forces in Afghanistan, this reference has conveniently been scrubbed from the website.)

Earlier in the debate, Johnson asked Feingold why he didn’t vote to condemn the “General Betray-Us” ad, as a majority of the Senate had.  Feingold remarked that this group had the right to “free speech.”  Later, however, Feingold called on Johnson to tell “extreme” third party groups to stop running independent ads on Johnson’s behalf.  Johnson responded that these groups, too, had the right to free speech.

What Johnson missed was the chance to ask Feingold – “if these third party groups are so ‘extreme,’ why did you just accept $600,000 from one of them?”  Staffers were kicking themselves after Johnson missed this softball – but then again, this debate was nearly invisible.  Any shot landed against Feingold would be just as quiet as a shot landed against Johnson.  And in the end, that benefited RonJon a great deal more.  (More importantly to Wisconsinites, Brett Favre threw a late-game interception to lose the game for the Vikings.)

And with that, the first two debates were in the books.  While the Feingold campaign could probably find some footage of Johnson to work into a TV ad, it wasn’t going to be very damaging material.

Further buoying the hopes of the Johnson campaign was the unimpressive slate of national debates taking place for the U.S. Senate across America.  In a debate two nights later, Republican Delaware hopeful Christine O’Donnell was asked what Supreme Court decisions she disagreed with – and she couldn’t name a single case.  Her opponent, Chris Coons, fended off charges he was once a “bearded Marxist.”  Senate Majority leader Harry Reid and Republican challenger Sharron Angle participated in an embarrassing debate in which both candidates didn’t even seem knowledgeable enough to program a thermostat.

Compared to these national disasters, Wisconsin seemed as if it were hosting the Lincon-Douglas debates.  “Ron would have smoked any of them,” boasted Ruesch, proud that her guy was once known as one of the most error-prone candidates in the national field.  She said that while watching Johnson give a newspaper interview recently, she was brought to tears twice.  “We’ve had a lot of ups and downs,” she said.  “And I remembered why I got into this in the first place.”

In the days following the debate, Johnson began to loosen up.  The immense pressure from the first two debates was off his shoulders.  His relationship with Ruesch warmed considerably.  They developed a routine that whenever they would go eat with reporters or supporters, Johnson would give Ruesch the pickle from his sandwich.  This always gave him the opening to begin a soliloquy about how he hates to waste things (even pickles, which he loathes.)

One day, Ruesch accompanied Johnson to an event to raise funds for breast cancer research. Part of the event involved Johnson getting on a treadmill for a photo-op.  Earlier in the campaign, Johnson had told his staff that they can’t consider themselves “real runners” unless they can run six miles.  So when RonJon stepped on the treadmill, staffer Nathan Naidu walked up next to him and held up a homemade sign that simply said “SIX MILES.”

While Johnson was in a better mood, the local media tasked with covering his campaign were not.  According to the campaign, prior to the Wausau debate, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Don Walker called Sendek and once again demanded Johnson’s full schedule.  When she didn’t grant it, the campaign said Walker vowed to start writing stories about Johnson’s refusal to produce his schedule until she did.  (“That’s not even close to being accurate,” said Walker in an e-mail following the election.)   Not wanting to rock the boat, the campaign granted Walker an exclusive sit-down with Johnson to smooth things over.

The race was starting to draw more attention from the national television news programs.  NBC and CBS sent crews out to do stories on Johnson, and despite the campaign’s attempts to limit his exposure in the national press, RonJon gave them plenty of time.  (Rumor had it Feingold would only give the national reporters four minutes apiece.)

This was the extent of the national exposure the campaign allowed – they figured the more under-the-radar they were, the better.  Accordingly, they turned down big offers to debate Feingold on national Sunday morning talk shows like “This Week with Christian Amanpour” on ABC.

However, it’s not as if Johnson had to go out of the way to dodge national media – most of the media coverage was being sucked up by comely Republican Delaware senate candidate Christine O’Donnell, who Jablonski called “the best thing that could have happened to Ron Johnson’s campaign.”

O’Donnell’s bizarre Tea Party-fueled candidacy fascinated the national press – they hinged on her every misstatement, despite it being clear that she had no chance of winning her race.  But the O’Donnell media sponge kept other lesser known, but just as important, candidates dry.

The last two weeks before an election are excruciating for campaign staffers.  Ironically, the only way to stay sane is to remain paranoid.  Instead of watching the clock and counting the days down, you’re better off checking and re-checking all your work.  Even if your candidate is ahead, you have to keep pushing forward.

The fact that Johnson still had one debate left helped keep his staff on task.  On October 22nd, Johnson was scheduled to take part in a debate at Marquette Law School in downtown Milwaukee.  The debate format would be tough – 90 minutes long, with candidates able to jump in and interrupt each other at any time.

Debate preparation for the final debate went smoothly.  Johnson still insisted on using lines that his staff abhorred – for instance, he had become fond of saying he not only wanted to win, but win by a large margin.  But he was more confident that he wouldn’t make the singular gaffe that could sink his campaign in the last week.

To the campaign, it had become evident that if Johnson made another verbal miscue, he wouldn’t have gotten a free pass from the state media.  Newspapers across the state continued to crank out negative, slanted stories about him.

On October 15th, the Wisconsin State Journal issued a blog post entitled “Johnson Spending a Fortune to Beat Feingold,” pointing out that Johnson had donated $5.3 million of his own money to his campaign.  What’s missing from the story – and from every story bemoaning Johnson’s use of his personal money to run his campaign – is that Feingold started the race with a head start of nearly $6 million in the bank.  Newspapers would print a manual detailing how to set up a meth lab in your basement before they printed the fact that Feingold was actually outspending Johnson during the election cycle.

(Of course, had Johnson raised enough from donors to close his funding gap with Feingold, he would have been criticized for raising money from “special interests.”  Somehow, Johnson has been corrupted by… his own money.)

Days later, an even weaker attempt to besmirch Johnson showed up in the Journal Sentinel, this time courtesy of Don Walker.  Walker wrote a story pointing out that five Pacur employees were on BadgerCare, Wisconsin’s program to help lower-income residents obtain health insurance.  The story was meant to paint RonJon as a hypocrite; Johnson was fond of criticizing the federal health care bill, while five of his 120 employees received government aid themselves.  Feingold himself jumped in, saying, “when somebody runs on this notion that government can never assist business, it kind of gets embarrassing,”

Of course, the article completely mischaracterized BadgerCare, which is a program for individuals, not businesses.  Feingold tried to shoehorn this into his previous “Ron Johnson hates government, but benefits from government subsidies” talking point.  But, in fact, Johnson had no clue any of his employees were on BadgerCare – all his employees had the opportunity to buy the Pacur health plan; if they didn’t, they had to go get it on their own.  When his staff asked Johnson if he could even guess which of his employees were on BadgerCare, he couldn’t come up with a single name.

Jablonski tried to predict the next headlines that would show up in the Journal Sentinel.  “Five Johnson Employees Use Public Roads to Get to Work,” or “Johnson Employees Breathe Air Kept Clean by Government Regulation” seemed the most likely.

With stories like this leaking out every day, the Johnson campaign realized the deck was stacked against them.  No newspaper had ever thought of stretching such a specious piece of information into a negative story on Russ Feingold.  And it was happening virtually every day against Johnson.  (Ironically, newspapers love bemoaning negative campaigning – yet much of what they do is cover attacks fed to them by candidates.)

The constant drum of negative stories against Johnson created a schism within his campaign staff.  Ruesch and Sendek, the public relations team, wanted to keep open lines of communication with the press.  They felt that’s what they were there for.  By continuing to use their judgment with reporters, they might be able to head off more negative stories.

Juston and Jablonski, on the other hand, had a different philosophy.  Juston indelicately described his preferred strategy as “don’t ever fucking talk to the media. For any reason.  Ever.”  They figured the press was going to write unflattering stories about Johnson no matter what, so there was no sense in giving them more material.  And their best bet was taking Johnson’s message directly to the voters, via television ads.  “The press is worse than the Feingold camp,” said Jablonski.  “We spend a lot of time worrying about the press, and almost no time worrying about Feingold.”

The paranoia over unfavorable media coverage reached its high point one day when Johnson’s nephew showed up at the campaign headquarters wearing an Adrian Peterson Minnesota Vikings jersey.  The campaign made him take it off, to avoid the Feingold camp ginning up some innuendo about Johnson being a Viking fan.

The inter-staff media discussion continued up until October 22nd, when Johnson arrived in Milwaukee for the third and final debate with Feingold.  Outside brand-new Eckstein Hall on the Marquette campus, supporters of each campaign waved signs for their candidate.  Two men wearing Chairman Mao masks waved large Chinese flags, holding signs that said “Ron Johnson will send my job to China.”

Inside the lecture hall, spectators filled into their seats, which formed a half-circle in front of the candidates.  Ruesch and Sendek, both dressed in their best skirt suits, glided among the crowd, chatting with members of the media.  They smiled and laughed earnestly at some of the same reporters that they secretly dreamt of throwing off a building.

Johnson and Feingold appeared on stage, took some photos together, and settled into their seats.  It was an uncomfortable 20 minutes before the debate would actually begin – during which time Feingold smiled and joked, and Johnson sat and stared straight ahead.

Once the debate began, it was clear that it was going to be monumentally boring.  It wouldn’t have been surprising if some of the oil painting portraits in the room got up and walked out.

But this was the best-case scenario for Johnson.  Feingold had the option of stirring things up, and opted instead to keep to the debate restrained.

Johnson did an adequate, if unspectacular, job of answering questions.  In debate prep, he was told not to refer to the “Bush tax cuts.”  He uttered the term once, but then when it came back around, he said the letter “B” before stopping himself and saying “the 2003 tax cuts.”  When asked later about what he felt about being told what specific words to use, he pursed his lips and said “it’s annoying.”

As the event moved on, however, it became clear that this wasn’t a debate between Ron Johnson and Russ Feingold – it was instead a debate between Feingold and the voters of Wisconsin.  Feingold continued to try to convince the audience that the health care and stimulus bills he supported were to their benefit.  Polls still show that the public strongly disagreed with him.  Johnson’s presence at the debate was largely superfluous.

When listening to a debate, it is easy to focus on what the candidates are immediately saying.  It isn’t until after the debate that one can tally up the message of what wasn’t said.

And upon reflection, the things Feingold didn’t say spoke volumes.  He fired the occasional obloquy at Johnson, but it always pertained to the question at hand – there was no mention of pedophiles, or of sex offenders in his business, or of BadgerCare, or anything meant to throw Johnson off.  Instead of setting the stage for a nuclear final week of campaigning, a stunning possibility became clear:

Feingold knew he was going to lose.  But he was going to lose like a man.

After the 90-minute debate, Ruesch and Sendek retreated to their holding room, where Sendek furiously banged out a press release.  Johnson, his brain free of  debate  facts, and linguistic rules, strode out into the night to speak to 400 GOP loyalists at Serb Hall on Milwaukee’s south side.  But first, he had a message for one of his staffers:

“That was hard.”


On the Friday before the election, Ron Johnson is stretched out in the back seat of his campaign van.  He is loose and relaxed, talking about how he just can’t get used to people recognizing him in public.  He describes the experience as traveling “through the looking glass.”  “I can’t wait to get home and get my pajamas on at night, so I can get back to being Ron Johnson again,” he says.

It has been a mercurial final week for the campaign.  The week began with the Associated Press publishing a ridiculously slanted article against Johnson (headline: “Wisconsin Senate Race Pits ‘Maverick’ Against ‘Rich Guy’”), which the National Review’s Andrew Stiles intuitively described as the AP “endorsing” Feingold.

Feingold has also started running a flurry of ads against Johnson, including one that uses Johnson’s quote to Politico about being able to say what his “true feelings” are after the election is over.  “I guess we should have clarified that we need him to not say he is not saying things,” said one staffer.

On the national scene, Johnson remained a fairly well-kept secret, thanks to Rand Paul in Kentucky.  Prior to a debate on October 25, a Paul campaign volunteer had been filmed stomping on the head of a protestor that was trying to present Paul with a fake “RepubliCorp” award.  Video of the melee dominated cable news talk shows for days afterwards.

Ironically, had stung Johnson with the same prank earlier in October.  At a meeting at the University Club in Milwaukee, a protestor dressed in a suit attempted to present Johnson with a fake “RepubliCorp” award for “standing up for the top 2%.”  When it was clear what was going on, the interloper was removed.  (Johnson’s campaign had previously issued a memo to staffers regarding how to peaceably deal with protestors.)

But with three days until the election, confidence was high on the Ron Johnson campaign bus.  In the past couple of days, several polls had been conducted that showed Johnson up by around seven percentage points in aggregate.  While holding court at the back of the bus, Johnson explains how honored he is to have been featured in a recent edition of The Onion.  The satirical newspaper had recently printed a humorous article ridiculing Johnson’s attempts to distance himself from Washington D.C. (titled, “My Opponent Knows Where Washington is on a Map; I Don’t, and I Never Will.”)  Johnson had asked his daughter to pick up a few copies of the paper when she visited Madison.

Johnson’s day began at 6 AM, when he visited the N&M Transfer headquarters in Neenah.  From there, he made his way to a McDonald’s on Jackson St. in Oshkosh to shake hands and conduct a brief interview with Ben Smith of Politico.

The McDonald’s stop illustrated the wildly disparate reactions candidates receive on the trail, often within seconds of each other.  While in the restaurant, Johnson was approached by a young nurse who was ecstatic to meet him; she excitedly took a picture with him.  On the way out of the restaurant, Johnson was met by a woman who harangued him for his positions on gay marriage.  RonJon listened politely, until it was time to get back on the bus.

This is perhaps the most jarring aspect of campaigning for new candidates; the fact that everyone in the world now has an opinion about you and how you’re doing your job.  Six months ago, nobody would have walked up to Ron Johnson and forcefully explained to him how he was manufacturing plastics incorrectly.  But now, he’s a public person with public responsibilities.

From there, the bus headed to WOSH 1490 for a radio interview with local host Bob Burnell, then to Father Carr’s Place 2B, a local food bank and homeless shelter.  The center is a converted warehouse with bright lime green walls, with a makeshift chapel set up in the back – complete with pews and an altar.  Johnson takes a tour of the center, delighting Sam, Patrick, Marty, and Mary Claire, a small group of adorable little kids there for the festivities.

From there, Johnson would hop back on the bus and head to Mike’s Place Family Restaurant on Jackson St. in Oshkosh.  When he walks in, all eyes in the restaurant turn to him.  This is the case with many politicians – they simply have a look about them that draws people to stare when they enter a room.  In many cases, it is easy to tell who the Senator is at a public event, even if you don’t know who they are.  They simply have “it.”  And based on how people react to him in public, plastics manufacturer Ron Johnson now has it.

When I asked him later about whether he thinks he has “the look” of someone important, he laughs.  “That’s what a couple million dollars’ worth of television ads will get you,” he said.  “Then again, maybe it is the good looks,” he adds, cracking a sarcastic smile.

At Mike’s Restaurant, there’s a reporter from the UK Independent newspaper waiting to ask him a few questions.  Johnson has also picked up a photographer from the New York Times, who would follow him around for much of the rest of the day.

Johnson finishes talking with restaurant patrons ahead of schedule, so the bus makes an unscheduled stop at another family restaurant.  While Johnson shakes hands, a group of about 20 ten year-old kids wearing Halloween costumes floods into the restaurant.  The last child in the group is wearing a hat meant to make him look like he has been beheaded, with bones and veins sticking out the top.  Ron Johnson, meet the kids whose futures you are trying to save.

Quickly, Johnson is back on the bus and headed for a strip mall, where he would visit a bank, a chiropractic office, and a data company.  On the bus, Joe Leschke, Johnson’s driver, discusses how unsettling it when people come up and try to peer into the bus, as if Pearl Jam were inside.  “They’re a little disappointed when they see me behind the wheel,” he says – although he says Johnson does drive the bus home by himself at night.

Still ahead of schedule, the bus heads back to the campaign headquarters for a little “down time.”  Back in the office, Johnson learns of a potential terrorist attack that was thwarted, in which suspicious packages were found on planes originating in Yemen and headed for America. Ron huddled quickly with Juston Johnson to discuss the day’s happenings.

Down time is short, however, and soon Johnson is back on the bus and headed for Jon’s Sport Shop.  The hunting and fishing store features a row of shotguns that looks like it goes on for a half mile.  The owner of the store presents Johnson with an obscenely large hunting knife.   It is engraved with Johnson’s campaign logo and the words “blade designed specifically to cut big spending, cut taxes, cut pork fat, and guard those who pledge allegiance to the flag.”

One staffer gazes at a gallon jug of deer urine and wonders why it costs $25.  “Because it’s the best,” says a store worker.  One wonders what the test to determine what the “best” deer urine is entails.

On the way to RonJon’s next engagement, the Northeast Wisconsin Chambers of Commerce luncheon, Johnson is joined by Reince Priebus, chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party.

Before the luncheon, Priebus noted why Johnson hadn’t been considered a “Tea Party” candidate in the mold of Rand Paul or Christine O’Donnell, despite starting his candidacy by giving speeches at Tea Party events (Johnson says he has never met any of the other Republican senate candidates).  Priebus points out that it was the Republican Party that recruited Johnson, and got him hooked up with advisors, fundraisers, and advertising people.  And Priebus is proud of the fact that the Republican party in Wisconsin works with the Tea Party, so both entities can support a candidate without there being any bad blood.

Over a mass lunch of roast beef sandwiches, Johnson gives his stump speech to a receptive audience of businesspeople and local politicians.  Journalists Byron York of the Washington Examiner and Rich Lowry of National Review have joined up with the entourage.  In his speech, Johnson hits all the points – this is a job interview, we need to repeal the health care bill, the future of America is at stake.  The speech lasts about 20 minutes and he receives a warm ovation on his way out.

Another diner, a furniture store, a coffee shop, a hardware store.  All Johnson’s stops are starting to blur together.  He visits several places by walking up and down Main Street in Oshkosh.  His entourage now includes three journalists, two photographers, four staffers, and a Democratic tracker, who has emerged wielding a video camera.  As a group they waddle from store to store like a family of ducks, all lined up.  Several people congratulate Johnson on winning Charlie Sykes’ weekly “Right Stuff” award on the radio an hour earlier – as if Johnson had just won a Nobel Prize.

Johnson gets a must-needed chance to rest during a half hour drive out to the Magnum generator plant in Berlin, Wisconsin.  Waiting for him there is a group of about 150 employees, who have been given an hour off from work to gather around a makeshift stage in a garage to see Johnson talk.  Magnum is the type of factory that, despite its workforce being one-third female, still allows employees to mount posters of half-naked women holding greasy wrenches at their workspace.  (Which, incidentally, is the dream of no living man.)

Johnson delivers a speech to the shivering employees that mirrors his earlier speech, with a little more emphasis on jobs and manufacturing.  He’s joined by Congressman Tom Petri, who has spent 31 years in the House of Representatives, and who could accurately be described as the type of “career politician” Johnson purports to abhor.

On the drive back to Oshkosh, Johnson is still energetic.  He says he maintains his fitness by doing NordicTrack to music as much as possible.  He has a CD of “Rock Hits of the ‘80’s” that he cranks up to maximum volume when his family is out of the house (including such hits as “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” by the Georgia Satellites and “I Hate Myself for Loving You” by Joan Jett.)

Up next on the schedule was the antidote to fitness – a trip to Leon’s Frozen Custard shop in Oshkosh.  In addition to their delicious frozen custard, Leon’s signature dish is an artery-attacking sloppy joe sandwich called the “Joos Burger.”  Johnson shakes hands with about a dozen assembled supporters and talks to the owner, before conducting a quick interview with a Channel 11 television news reporter.  He then grabs a dish of custard and jumps back on the bus (counting about 30 times today that he had taken his suit jacket off and put it back on.)

The day ends up back at headquarters, with Bourbon the Dog still carefully eyeing up suspicious visitors that enter.  But the rest is short-lived, as the night schedule features a rally at the Eagles Club down the road in Oshkosh.

The main ballroom of the Eagles Club itself is an impressive venue – flanked by an ornate balcony, its hardwood floors still have the freshly-refinished smell that harkens back to high school basketball games.  As people file in, they are handed miniature American flags and Ron Johnson campaign signs.

Within the past few days, Johnson’s staff contemplated changing the venue for this rally, thinking they wouldn’t get enough supporters there to fill it up.  But as warm-up act James T. Harris thundered through his monologue, more and more people pressed up to the front of the stage.  Soon, the balcony would fill up.

The rally began with emcee Charlie Sykes telling the crowd the story of how he started the Ron Johnson phenomenon by simply reading some RonJon’s pre-candidacy speeches on the air.  Sykes’ portion ended with the talk show host predicting Russ Feingold’s re-introduction to the private sector in four days.

Sykes then introduced Congressman Paul Ryan, who threw out many of his tried and true free-market verbal bouquets to the crowd.  Ryan emphasized that the future of the country was at stake.  When he left the stage, Sykes implored Ryan to run for president, and Ryan sheepishly shrugged it off, as if he hadn’t been asked that question every ten minutes of his life for the past two years.

When Ron Johnson took the stage, the crowd was energized beyond a typical Republican campaign event.  Johnson gave the same stump speech he had given earlier in the day, but threw in a story about the selflessness of soldiers to emphasize his belief in American exceptionalism.  (Earlier in the day, he had mentioned he was pulling out “the soldier story” for his speech and warned me to pack a tissue.)

The crowd surged forward during his speech, demonstrating an enthusiasm reserved for people other than plastics manufacturers.  But on this stage in his hometown, Ron Johnson was more than “a guy from Oshkosh.”  He was the living embodiment of the crowd’s trepidation about the future, and their passion for change.  Johnson was the antenna through which they channeled their vision of what America should – and could, once again – look like.

And he had come a long way.

Five weeks before Russ Feingold’s first election in 1992, a brash young quarterback named Brett Favre made his first start for the Green Bay Packers.  Days before the 2010 election, the broken body of old, gray, scandal-ridden Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre laid on the ground, gushing blood from his chin.  The Johnson campaign hoped there was a modicum of symbolic symmetry between those two legendary Wisconsin figures.

The Ron Johnson election night victory party was held in a converted airplane hangar at the EAA Museum in Oshkosh.  The walls were adorned with large, colorful maps, and the floor featured roped-off airplanes such as the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and the Chance Vought F40 Corsair.  One could accuse the Johnson campaign of using such a setting metaphorically – a future senator getting his political career off the ground – but they most likely picked it simply because it was a really cool place.

At about 6 PM on election night, Johnson enthusiasts began to file in the hangar.  It’s sometimes jarring for campaign staff to see actual voters – while locked up in an office during the election cycle, voters are merely antiseptic numbers and trends.  But on election night, here they are in the flesh – real people with outrageous mustaches, pot bellies and insensible shoes.

Inside, the crowd exhibits the anticipation of a group that has only seen one Republican senator in 47 years.  They drink, laugh, and watch the large screen projection television that has been set up for them to see results.  Their kids sit catatonic, angry at their parents for dragging them out to this thing.

Also in attendance is Jack Jablonski’s wife and now-5 month old son, who he’s only seen one day a week since his birth.  “After the election, he’s going to be pissed that there’s some new guy moving in to his house,” Jablonski jokes.  Jack spent most of the night tied to a headset in the “war room,” receiving vote totals from poll watchers around the state.

In the meantime, Ruesch and Sendek deal with the gaggle of 80 media members who have assembled on a high-riser to document tonight’s proceedings.  Sendek has already done a couple of on-camera television interviews.  When Ruesch talks to Channel 12 news from Milwaukee, it is beamed down to the large screen televisions at the Scott Walker victory party near Waukesha, eliciting big cheers from partygoers there.

When the polls close at 8 PM, the large television starts flashing results from the race.  Early results show Johnson up, and faux cheers arise every time the television shows “Johnson 58%, Feingold 41%” or a similar result.  The campaign staff, tucked away in a side room, are getting different numbers that show the race to be much closer.  Sure, the early returns had been favorable, but Johnson was going to have to get a big lead and cling to it as the heavily liberal City of Madison numbers made their way through the process, as a swallowed pig makes its way through a python.

At around 9:00, Republican Scott Walker was declared the winner of Wisconsin’s gubernatorial race.  To get some fresh air, Ron’s wife Jane and daughter Jenna walked out to observe the gathering from the back of the room.  They hid behind some of the airplanes, where they were all alone.

But then, just like that, it happened.  At 9:39 PM, NBC news called the race for Ron Johnson.  The 1200-plus people in the hangar erupted with applause.  And after all the fundraising, and all the shaking hands, and all the battling with the press, and all the learning how to be a candidate, Ron Johnson was now a senator-elect.

Of course, networks have been wrong before when they call races – so it took until nearly 11:00 PM for Feingold to call Johnson and concede.  Shortly thereafter, Feingold took the stage and gave a brief, but emotional concession speech.  It was clear he was trying to look upbeat, but he gave the speech as if there were a lobster in his underwear.

Feingold quoted Bob Dylan, saying “But my heart is not weary, it’s light and free, I’ve got nothing but affection for those who have sailed with me.”  He finished by thundering, “it’s on to the next battle, it’s on to 2012,” which led many to believe Feingold would be back to run for the U.S. Senate in two years, should 75-year old incumbent Herb Kohl decide not to run.

As soon as Feingold finished at his party in Madison, Senator-elect Ron Johnson strode to the podium in Oshkosh.  Flanked by his family, he thanked his wife, kids, and campaign staff (Juston was the only one he recognized by name.)  He bragged that he had gotten up to 40,000 Facebook fans. (On the bus three days earlier, he was ecstatic about passing Scott Walker in Facebook fans, and set his sights on Paul Ryan, who leads Wisconsin politicians with 47,000.)

In total, Johnson’s speech went about twelve minutes – four times as long as Feingold’s curt concession.  It was a version of his stump speech, with the soldier story tacked on the end.  But it didn’t matter how many times his supporters had heard these words fall from his mouth – he stood before them one of the most astounding political stories of 2010.

By night’s end, Republicans would win control of the Wisconsin Assembly, Senate, governorship, one U.S. Senate seat, and two House seats.  It was a bloodbath for the Democrats, who saw both their Speaker of the Assembly and Senate Majority Leader lose their seats.

Nationally, Republicans won over 60 seats and regained control of the House of Representatives.  In the Senate, the GOP picked up six seats, short of the number needed to take control.  Yet many of the states where the GOP gained seats (Illinois, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, North Dakota, Indiana) routinely elect Republicans statewide; Wisconsin hadn’t elected a GOP U.S. senator since 1986.  National media darlings like Marco Rubio and Rand Paul sailed to election, but did so in seats previously held by Republicans.  Ron Johnson’s pickup stands alone as perhaps the most stunning of GOP victories.

One of the most famous skits from Monty Python’s Flying Circus involves a man who tries to return a dead parrot to a pet store.  The store’s owner insists that the parrot isn’t dead, it is only “resting.”  Hilarity ensues as the owner stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that the parrot has “ceased to be.”

In defending his votes for the health care and stimulus bills, Russ Feingold repeatedly tried to convince the Wisconsin public that he hadn’t sold them a dead parrot.  Feingold’s unfailing insistence that the public didn’t understand how good they had it made him look completely out of touch with the electorate.  And he paid for it with his job.

In early April of 2010, Michelle Litjens, the chairwoman of the Winnebago Republican Party, found some local guy that was thinking of running for the U.S. Senate.   She brought him down to a meeting of a handful of conservative operatives in Madison.  He didn’t even know he was supposed to speak at this meeting, and patched together a few talking points in the car on the way down.

When Litjens introduced businessman Ron Johnson to the group, people rolled their eyes and checked their watches as he ambled through his reasons for running.  There were already a few people thinking about running for senate, and even Wisconsin political legend Tommy Thompson was considering getting in the race.  The last thing Wisconsin needed was another rich guy to serve as fodder for the Feingold political machine.  Just who did this thin-faced, white-haired guy think he was?

Six months later, everyone found out who he was.  He was Ron Johnson, Republican Senator from Wisconsin.

Consider the Humble Candidates: Who cares if they grew up eating dirt sandwiches?

dirt_sandwichIn an online ad, Republican congressional candidate Dan Kapanke wants you to know he’s a real guy. “Having been born and raised on a dairy farm, I have a pretty good idea of what Wisconsin people value,” says Democrat Ron Kind’s challenger for the 3rd District seat.

While it’s a nice sentiment, it’s meaningless. Growing up on a dairy farm doesn’t teach anyone anything I value. It teaches a person to milk cows and shovel manure.

This is perhaps the most annoying aspect of campaign commercials by candidates of both parties — the “I’m from humble beginnings” talking point.

Of course, the second most annoying campaign commercial stunt is the “candidate walking through a factory wearing goggles and a hard hat” shot. It’s meant to convey the candidate’s connection to the hard-working commoner — as if the only jobs that really mean anything are jobs in factories.

But you know what a really hard job is? Being a stripper. Just once, I’d like to see a Russ Feingold for Senate commercial where an adult dancer on a pole works out her frustration with the bad economy to Mötley Crüe’s “Kickstart My Heart,” while Feingold stands nearby, looking concerned (and wearing a hard hat and goggles, of course).

Even more ridiculous than the “I feel the pain of the working man” candidates are the ones who pretend they grew up poor. You know, their parents took them to McDonald’s, and all they could order was a large napkin and a small straw.

Now it’s true that there are things to be admired in coming from humble beginnings. It teaches some people to value simple pleasures, and it gives them a sense of what manual labor is really like.

But let’s face it, among people who grow up in trailer parks, the number who end up taking paternity tests on the “Maury Povich Show” outstrips congressmen by about 1.2 million to one. Yet voters seem to associate growing up poor as evidence of character and accomplishment.

I, for one, don’t really care about a candidate’s life story. I care what’s in his or her future. If a rich kid goes to really great schools, takes advantage of learning from the best teachers, and emerges a bright and energetic adult, that’s a thing to be admired.

Yet you never see a campaign ad that begins with the words, “I overcame growing up rich….”

Should we discount Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin because she was raised in a well-educated household with two UW-Madison faculty grandparents? Should we think any less of Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner because his great-grandfather founded Kimberly-Clark? Is Sen. Russ Feingold any less electable because his father was a big-shot attorney?

Of course, the answer is no. In fact, the inverse is true, as well. When I drive by a house with a car up on blocks in the front yard, it doesn’t compel me to walk up to the guy in the wife-beater t-shirt on the front porch, hand him my wallet, and trust him to spend my money wisely.

Here’s a message to candidates: We don’t care if you grew up eating dirt sandwiches. We do, however, care if you understand economics, foreign policy and the limits of do-goodism.

If all else fails, candidates should consider the fearsome lesson of John Edwards, whose treacly claim of moral and political goodness because he grew up poor as “the son of a mill worker” was not exactly convincing.

The millionaire trial attorney proved himself to be a world-class scumbag when he fathered a child out of wedlock while his wife, Elizabeth, was battling breast cancer.

Maybe someday his fatherless two-year-old daughter can use her story of overcoming adversity to run for Congress herself. Or she could end up in a Russ Feingold stripper commercial. Let’s hope she chooses the more admirable career path — and decides to strap on the heels and work the pole.

Youthful Indiscretions: Our Politicians are Both Juvenile and Delinquent

babyThe ubiquitous television commercial plays nonstop, making it the aural wallpaper of our lives: Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” remixed over modern beats, reminds us that the fountain of youth can be found in a sweet carbonated beverage.

It’s not the first marketing campaign to promise us eternal youth, and it won’t be the last. In fact, as we get older, commercials sell us on being even younger-in 10 years, Pepsi is probably going to promise me I can enjoy life once again as a fetus.

But these marketing campaigns bring up an interesting question that filters beyond culture, into the way we’re governed: Is the world really short on people who are acting too grown-up?

When I was a kid, it used to be that we were always in a rush to grow up. Someone’s older brother always had an awesome new R.E.M. tape that gave us a window into what college life was like-and we’d do anything to get a piece of it. At age 16, my friends and I sneaked into a Washington, D.C., bar, and I sat stunned, enjoying poetry readings next to a guy with a beard.

Today, our feelings on age seem to be the exact opposite. People my age are now obsessed with youth culture. Grown men measure their cultural status based on whether they’re beating 16-year-olds in online Xbox games. Women in their 30s and 40s giggle about the Jonas Brothers and seek refuge from real life in tales written for teenage girls about nubile young vampires.

Ask any woman, and she’ll tell you she’d rather be Megan Fox than Margaret Thatcher. (Although in college, I found out you can quickly turn the latter into the former with a bottle of Bacardi and a light switch.)

Our government leaders have caught on to the juvenalization of the American public. If there are any two personality traits that characterize young people, it is their avarice and their inability to think long term. And there is no better way to describe today’s elected leaders.

Politicians on the national level promise us universal health care while ignoring how they’re going to pay for it. They run up trillions of dollars of debt, selling our future to China. They spend billions of dollars on farcical economic “stimulus” efforts that seem to only benefit political cronies, while America continues to hemorrhage jobs. As if children on a playground, they hurl puerile epithets like “racist” and “teabagger” to impugn their ideological opponents.

Wisconsin’s leaders on the state level aren’t any better. Despite being required to pass a balanced budget, the state currently faces a $2.7 billion deficit. Wisconsin’s governor and Legislature simply can’t resist the urge to buy more government than it can pay for. This isn’t at all unlike what would happen if I let my 6-year-old daughter loose in Toys R’ Us with a credit card.

All of this, of course, reflects a society that doesn’t mind being lectured on the environment by the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio. Or having Jessica Alba tell them who to vote for in a presidential election. Or being told not to wear fur by Pamela Anderson.

I, for one, have come to grips with getting older. I wouldn’t trade the life experiences I’ve had, people I’ve met, books I’ve read, food I’ve tasted, for anything. Sure, I could do without my belly button sagging sadly over my belt, and I’d prefer it if my nose hair didn’t look like two hamsters were having a boxing match in my nostrils.

But with age comes experience, and I’m hopeful I’ve translated what I’ve learned into being a more responsible adult.

This is a lesson our political leaders need to take to heart. As Flannery O’Connor implored, we need to start “pushing as hard as the age that pushes against you.” On both the national and state level, we need adult supervision. The issues of our day will remain intractable until the people we choose to represent us just…grow up.

“Mommy, What Does a Union Member Look Like?”

The stereotype of the typical union member is time-tested. Union Man is a pot-bellied factory worker or tradesman making a good living despite never having graduated college. He wears an old flannel shirt and muddy work boots. And much like the Catholic Church hierarchy, in which the bigger your hat, the greater your importance, union status is conferred on those with the largest mustaches.

Union Man believes in the strength of numbers—that the security of his job depends on the security of his colleagues’ jobs, even if he knows he works harder than they do. He’s suspicious of people who make more money than he does, and Union Man thinks “the rich” aren’t paying their “fair share.”

As such, Union Man supports Democratic candidates with both his union dues and his vote. And he isn’t afraid to vote against his best interests if it means sticking it to management.

In Wisconsin, this stereotype was most recently reinforced by the saga of Mercury Marine, a small-engine factory near Sheboygan that faced falling revenues and a beckoning suitor in Oklahoma. Mercury asked its union for concessions or suffer the closing of the plant. It took the workers three contested votes to reach a deal to save their jobs.

As this charade rolled on, the public gazed, incredulously, at the union members in their natural habitat, tempting the catastrophic closing of their plant with their obstinacy. Thus, the age-old stereotype of the union simpleton as hardhat economic illiterate gained currency.

But not so fast.

In reality, the typical union member is a very different person. A statewide poll conducted in September by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (publisher of this magazine) found the typical union member to be female, with a college education, making more than $75,000 per year. Of the union households responding to the survey, 79% had attended college, with 14% completing graduate work.

Even more intriguing, the typical union household is much more fiscally conservative than traditional stereotypes would suggest. Among union members, 52% listed either “holding the line on taxes and government spending” or “improving the state’s economy and protecting jobs” as the top priority of the Legislature. Traditional union priorities, such as making health care and prescription drugs more affordable (12%), scored much lower than expected.

Among union households, President Obama is still popular, with a 64% approval rating. Yet Gov. Jim Doyle, who is to Wisconsin unions what Hugh Hefner is to teenage boys, actually has a high unfavorability rating, with 49.7% rating him “somewhat” or “very” unfavorably. This is even higher than the 47.4% unfavorable rating Doyle received from the public at large.

So put away the stereotype of the typical union member. Forget about the picketing goon and consider the professional woman who tends to be an economic conservative. How did our perception get so wrong?

For one, unionization in America has been changing rapidly. According to the census, 20% of workers in the U.S. were union members in 1983. Twenty-five years later, union membership has dropped to 12% of the workforce. Yet membership remains high in public-sector jobs, with government workers five times more likely to be union members than their private-sector counterparts. And within government, education and library service jobs were the most heavily unionized, at 38.7%.

As we know, “education” and “library” jobs have traditionally meant “women.” And that is why, after men held a 10-point lead nationally over women in union membership in 1983, it appears professional women may have crept ahead in Wisconsin in 2009.

And these women, despite being unionized government employees, are educated, well paid, and shell out a boatload in taxes. Which may explain, in large part, why they may be more apt to be skeptical of government.

For instance, when asked whether government should guarantee every citizen a job and a good standard of living, 67% of union households objected to the notion—even higher than the overall 65% “no” from the general public.

So when you’re out at a restaurant and commenting on the typical “union goons,” remember: Today’s union members walk among us, like chameleons adapting to their new environments. Their changed appearance has thrown our “union-dar” out of whack, so it’s much more difficult to tell who might be a card-carrying AFL-CIO member.

And today’s union members may be more reasonable than we remember. Before conservatives write them off, it might bear electoral fruit for Republicans to get to know them better.

After all, these are not your father’s unions.

Bring on the Stats Nerds

“The Milwaukee Brewers’ Ryan Braun is the best young hitter in the major leagues.”

Utter such a sentiment among casual baseball fans, and you’re likely to get some nods of agreement. Braun, after all, had the second most home runs in baseball history after two seasons, ahead of legends like Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and Babe Ruth.

Make a claim to Braun’s greatness over at the Baseball Prospectus website, however, and you may need to put on a helmet to absorb the punishment you’ll likely take.

You see, they’ve developed a statistic they call VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) that statistically measures a player’s value relative to an average player at their position. According to this formula, Braun currently ranks 12th in the National League, even behind his own teammate, Prince Fielder.

For the better part of a decade, the Internet has been swamped with rabid armies of statistics nerds who live to debunk common perceptions about the value of baseball players. These basement number-crunchers find poetry in statistical analyses, creating formulas with names like VORP, Win Shares, PECOTA, WHIP, and OPS to give the public a true representation of whether players are actually doing their jobs.

The irony, of course, is that these unpaid baseball stat wonks conduct these complex statistical analyses for an industry that merely serves as entertainment. Despite the very real pain Brewers fans felt over the team’s 26-year absence from the playoffs, baseball statistics don’t really mean anything in terms of how we live our lives.

And yet there are armies of statisticians, spending days on end working for free, analyzing the sport inside and out to give us an accurate look at what works and what doesn’t.Now, compare this to the world of things that actually do matter in our lives—say, government programs. Federal, state, and local governments vacuum money out of our wallets on a daily basis to pay for expensive pet programs—most of which never receive any meaningful performance review.

Where is the army of stat dorks telling us, for instance, whether the billions of dollars taxpayers pump into agricultural subsidies actually do any good? Where is the hot new statistical formula that gives us a more accurate look at whether the state paying billions of dollars for government employees’ retirement benefits actually aids the taxpayers who fund them? Does paying the teachers more money lead to a better educational experience for our kids?

All of these examples seem to be taken as gospel by Wisconsin politicians. But how do they know?

The answer is simple—they don’t want to know. They avoid hard statistical analysis like vampires avoid garlic.Politicians earn re-election by telling stories. Stories of how supposedly underfunded our education system is. Stories of how if one more butterfly gets the flu, our delicate ecosystem will collapse due to lack of environmental programs.

Numbers, statistics, and serious research have no place in our Legislature, where re-election is priority number one. Unbiased facts just spoil the fairy tales our politicians tell us. For instance, explaining to legislators that raising the minimum wage actually increases unemployment would be like telling your kids the story of how Sleeping Beauty contracted cold sores from Prince Charming.

Of course, the Legislature employs the Audit Bureau, an impeccable service agency dedicated to rooting out fraud and waste in state government. But oftentimes, the LAB is directed to do studies ordered by the Legislature merely to make it look like elected officials are doing something about a problem.

When the Audit Bureau does release studies that make recommendations to better a state government program, they are almost always ignored, as if they were a pretty girl at a Star Trek convention.

The underlying dynamic of state government isn’t helping people—it is simply maintaining its own inertia. Our governments exist to keep themselves alive and growing, and the less scrutiny they receive, the better their chances of doing so.

It’s as if government is an 18-wheeler, barreling down the road uncontrollably, with deep-rooted special interests at the wheel. Studies conducted by the likes of WPRI and the Legislative Audit Bureau can serve as a GPS navigation system for this out-of-control semi, steering it where it needs to go to truly benefit the people it purports to aid.

Until then, as if it were a baseball player with a low OPS, state government will continue to flail wildly at the plate, extending Wisconsin’s losing streak. Let’s just hope the stat nerds catch on before our fans all give up, relocate, and find a new team to cheer.

Why Conservatives Like Me are So… Negative

Wisconsin is in the midst of a health-care crisis. A health-care crisis so serious, in fact, that state government needs to swoop in and seize control of the health insurance system in a way no state has done in the history of our nation.

Luckily for us, this health-care crisis apparently exists nowhere else in the country, which means nobody in any other state would even be tempted to move to Wisconsin to take advantage of the “free” health care offered by Wisconsin’s taxpayers.

Such is the logic of Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker, who has vowed to re-introduce the $15.2 billion government-run “Healthy Wisconsin” plan this session. In responding to a recent Wisconsin Policy Research Institute report that an estimated 142,000 sick people would indeed move to our state to take advantage of free health care, Decker took a shot at WPRI, saying the institute likes to criticize ideas, but they “never come up with any suggestions.”

Clearly, WPRI has replaced late-night roadside breathalyzer tests as Decker’s primary nemesis.

It seems unlikely that Decker stays up late reading WPRI’s reports, each of which is bursting at the seams with proactive suggestions. But this is forgivable, since it probably takes him a lot of time to answer all of Chuck Chvala’s Facebook messages.

Decker’s point, however, is worth addressing, since it’s a refrain heard often in politics: “Why so negative?”

To some, merely criticizing a damaging government program without offering a commensurate remedy makes you a “nattering nabob of negativity.”

Yet for conservatives, stopping terrible new government actions is the whole point. We don’t look at government in terms of what it can do for us – we see government in terms of what it does to us.

Thus, any proactive suggestion we have to reduce governmental interference in the market and our lives would be as welcome to Decker as a lap dance from Gov Jim Doyle. So Decker can complain all he wants about WPRI not making “suggestions,” but it’s clear he’d ignore them if he got around to reading them anyway.

One can look at improving government in two ways: urging it to do things that help us and convincing it to stop screwing up.

As it currently stands, our state government is doing neither. In fact, if the Legislature and governor went halfway and merely stopped screwing up, we wouldn’t be staring at a $5.7 billion deficit.

Case in point: In February, the Democrat-controlled state Senate voted on the same day to raise the state minimum wage in perpetuity, and to change the order in which banks are paid back when businesses go bankrupt, which will make it riskier for creditors to lend money.

One is left with two explanations after those votes, and neither is appealing. Either the Senate is too dumb to understand that discouraging banks from lending and forcing higher costs on businesses is a syringe full of rat poison for an already struggling economy. Or the Democrats know damn well it is, but they have to pay back the unions that make up their base. Neither scenario exactly inspires one to get out the pompoms in support of our elected officials.

Yet Russ Decker clearly thought these were good, proactive “suggestions.” Unfortunately, they are government actions that will force higher unemployment and, consequently, more budget problems, as more unemployed workers will need government services. As it turns out, doing nothing was our best bet.

Which brings us back to Healthy Wisconsin.

The state has budgeted about $28 billion in general fund spending for the next two years, but faces a $5.7 billion deficit.

For the sake of argument, concede the Democrats’ talking point that the economic recession is to blame for the entire shortfall. Imagine what would have happened had the state had its hands on $30 billion of Healthy Wisconsin money in the next two years.

There would have been a disastrous $6 billion deficit in the Healthy Wisconsin fund, on top of the $5.7 billion general fund deficit. It would have been a complete catastrophe – even the Donner Party would have been saying, “Well, at least we’re not from Wisconsin.”

So we here at WPRI will sit patiently by our mailbox, waiting for a signed card from Russ Decker thanking us for arguing against Healthy Wisconsin and saving him from such a budget disaster.

Now he can get back to doing good things for the people of Wisconsin, like passing tougher penalties for drunk driving.

Oh, wait – he’s against that, too.

Wisconsin’s Third Party Animals

On the evening of November 5, 2002, the election results began to roll in. A rainy election day had come to wash away the grime from an often-brutal gubernatorial race in Wisconsin, which had seen the candidates refer to each other as “crooked” and “absolutely disreputable.” Incumbent Republican Governor Scott McCallum, who had been in office scarcely two years, faced a strong challenge from long-time Democratic Attorney General Jim Doyle. The race was a crucial turning point for Wisconsin, as it represented the first time in sixteen years iconic Governor Tommy Thompson was not on the ballot.

Merely a year earlier, Republican officials could only have dreamed about Doyle pulling a paltry 45% of the vote on election night. McCallum had suffered in Thompson’s shadow after Tommy had left to be Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Bush Administration. McCallum, saddled with a large budget deficit, sought to cut spending to local governments to make up the difference. Naturally, local officials, many of them Republicans, appeared all too willing to defenestrate McCallum in favor of the Democrat.

Yet on election night, Doyle’s poor showing did little to cheer up the GOP faithful. While the Democrat had fallen well short of the magic 50% mark, McCallum had pulled in a woeful 41%, losing to Doyle by nearly 66,000 votes. For the first time in sixteen years, Wisconsin would be led by a Democrat – and a long time bitter Thompson foe, at that.

The reason both major candidates together could only muster 86% of the total vote could be found in bucolic Tomah, Wisconsin (pop. 8,400). Former boxer, professional card player, tavern owner, and Tomah Mayor Ed Thompson had decided a year earlier to run for Governor in 2002. Thompson, a short, stout man with glasses so thick they looked like they could plausibly protect him from a bullet, had signed on with the Libertarian Party of Wisconsin in order to make his third party charge toward the state’s highest office. His sole qualification for the office of governor appeared to be that he once emerged from the same womb as his brother, Governor Tommy Thompson.

Thompson’s 2002 run for governor represented a perfect storm for a third party candidacy in Wisconsin. The Legislature was in the midst of a scandal that eventually led to leaders of both houses being convicted of felonies for crimes such as extortion, bribery, and using state offices for fundraising. The economic downturn of 2001 left voters skeptical of either party’s ability to deal with their financial troubles. By September 2002, 45 percent of Wisconsin residents felt the state was on the wrong track, up from 20 percent only three years earlier. Seventy-five percent of citizens believed lobbyists had more say in how the government spent money than voters did.

Of course, Thompson’s last name didn’t hurt either. As the brother of the state’s most beloved political figure, Ed Thompson had immediate name recognition throughout the state. Plus, it’s not entirely impossible that some voters may have actually confused Ed Thompson with his famous brother. Confusion over names at the polls isn’t exactly unprecedented—it is believed by some historians that Wisconsin’s first African-American legislator, Lucien Palmer, was elected in 1906 because voters confused him with another political Palmer, who was white. Lucien Palmer only lasted one two-year term, which may have been just enough time for voters to figure out their “mistake.”

Perhaps the most famous example of mistaken identity in Wisconsin politics occurred in 1970, when a Sheboygan gas station attendant Robert A. Zimmerman ran as a Democrat for the position of secretary of state. At the time, the incumbent secretary of state happened to be a popular Republican, Robert C. Zimmerman. Robert A. Zimmerman, who wasn’t allowed to speak during the campaign by his mentor Edmond Hou-Seye, won the Democratic primary against up-and-comer Tom Fox, presumably because voters confused him with the incumbent secretary. (Fox went on to become commissioner of insurance in Wisconsin.) Zimmerman, the mute gas station attendant, went on to lose to Zimmerman the secretary of state. Hou-Seye went on to run several ill-fated races for statewide office himself, coining the phrase “journalism is the science of distortion” along the way.

Wisconsin historically has been a sanctuary for third parties. It was in Wisconsin where Robert M. LaFollette, Jr. split the Progressive Party off from the GOP in 1934. That year, the Progressives won a landslide of state offices, including Philip LaFollette winning the governor’s office for the first time as a Progressive candidate. Milwaukee famously elected three Socialist mayors in the first half of the twentieth century, the only major city in the U.S. to have done so.

In recent years, third parties in Wisconsin have continued to affect statewide elections. In 2000, Vice President Al Gore defeated Texas Governor George W. Bush by 5,708 votes in Wisconsin. Gore’s margin of victory was actually less than the 6,640 Wisconsin votes cast for Libertarian Harry Browne for president in that same election. In the 2000 election, third party presidential votes numbered 116,445 in Wisconsin—nearly 20 times the size of Gore’s margin of victory. Everyone remembers the vote count debacle and subsequent court action in Florida following that presidential election, yet that charade would not have occurred had a small fraction of third party voters in Wisconsin shifted their votes to George W. Bush.

Strong third party voting in Wisconsin held true to form in 2004, when Senator John Kerry beat Bush by 11,384 votes. In that election, Wisconsin saw 26,397 votes cast for third party candidates. While well below the 2000 third party vote (due mostly to a drastically diminished Ralph Nader effort), the third party total still greatly exceeded the final margin of victory for Kerry.

Naturally, Ed Thompson wasn’t the only third party candidate in the field in 2002. Thompson was joined by 34-year-old Aneb Jah Rasta Sensas-Utcha Nefer-I, who insisted that he was already governor of Wisconsin. “I was born to rule, because God’s judgment will judge all unrighteousness,” said Sensas-Utcha, a native of Milwaukee. “I’m the damn governor of the State of Wisconsin.” To back up this claim, Sensas-Utcha pointed to several bills regarding E Coli that he had passed earlier. Unfortunately, he was unable to describe the details of this important legislation, claiming the press might be able to use it against him. Despite his previous hypothetical electoral success, Sensas-Utcha was only able to muster 929 votes statewide in November.

Thompson was also joined as a third party gubernatorial candidate by Mike Mangan, who campaigned wearing a gorilla suit. Mangan, a self-employed energy consultant from Waukesha, waged what he called a “guerilla attack against state spending.” Mangan criticized the state’s “King Kong deficit,” which is quite a coincidence since he happened to own a gorilla mask. (Fortunately for Mangan, the deficit wasn’t the size of a turtle, as he would have had to scramble for a new costume.) Mangan was actually a fan of Ed Thompson’s run, seeing it as a breakthrough for third parties in future races, saying, “I think he’s opening doors.”

These independent candidates represent only a small sliver of the colorful history of third party politicians in Wisconsin. In 1974, flamboyant West Milwaukee used car dealer James Groh legally changed his name to “Crazy Jim” to run for governor as an independent. Crazy Jim was a staunch advocate of legalized gambling, and frequently spun a tale of how he once played cards with Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas. At the time, the concept of legal gambling in Wisconsin seemed to be far-fetched—yet Crazy Jim turned out to be a visionary, as Wisconsin adopted a state lottery and welcomed almost unlimited Indian casino gambling by the 1990s. Crazy Jim lost to incumbent Patrick Lucey 629,000 votes to 12,100; but his family said he took solace throughout his life in the fact that he carried Waushara County. (Although he did not—records show he only garnered 47 votes in Waushara County, which placed him a distant fifth.) Crazy Jim died in 2002 of a heart attack.

In Madison, self-described “futurist” Richard H. Anderson has run for numerous offices, including state assembly, mayor, and city council. Anderson routinely ran on an “anti-mind control” platform, believing the government had planted a cybernetic chip in his brain. A self-described bisexual, Anderson fought for better treatment of minorities and, as a surprise to exactly no one, for legalized marijuana. “Just because I’m a pot head doesn’t mean I’m not qualified to hold office,” he once said. Unfortunately, the government rarely used mind control to direct voters to vote for him, as he once mustered a scant six votes in a race for the state Assembly against now-Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin. Naturally, the Progressive Capital Times newspaper said Anderson had “made a good impression.”

(One has to wonder what a debate between a “pro-mind control” and “anti-mind control” candidate is like. Presumably, the “anti” candidate would get up to speak, the “pro” candidate would glare and point his finger at them, and the “anti” candidate would sheepishly sit back down without saying a word.)

Yet the candidacy of Ed Thompson in 2002 represented a breakthrough for independent candidates, who had previously been relegated to the scrap heap of oddities, curiosities, and also-rans. In early 2001, Thompson was a man without a party. Without the backing of a more established third party, a Thompson candidacy could have been viewed as a fringe endeavor and may have lost traction quickly.

Early that year, Thompson met with notorious independent Governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura of Minnesota, who had been carried by his nationwide wrestling fame to victory in 1998. (Thompson would later joke that he should be called Ed “The Belly.”) The meeting was arranged by Bob Collison, leader of the Libertarian Party of Wisconsin. Soon thereafter, Thompson signed on as the official Libertarian candidate for governor of Wisconsin. It was a symbiotic relationship—the Libertarian tag gave Thompson the legitimacy his campaign needed, while Thompson gave the Libertarians a big enough name to finally make a splash in state politics.

Yet there remained an internecine struggle within the party between Libertarians who fundamentally subscribed to the Libertarian principles of limited government and those looking for statewide legitimacy in the electoral process. Clearly, Ed Thompson wasn’t a dyed-in-the-wool Libertarian, although he espoused many of the dangers of government police powers. In the late 1990s, Thompson’s Tee Pee supper club was raided by authorities and four nickel slot machines were confiscated. He refused to cut a deal and plead guilty, and the charges were dropped when the county district attorney was voted out of office over the raid. Thompson said that one of his motivations for running for governor was to beat then-Attorney General Jim Doyle, whom he believes had ordered the raid on the Tee Pee.

However, this desire for deregulated gambling alone wasn’t enough to make him a Libertarian. As mayor of Tomah, Thompson governed as if he were any mayor of any small town in Wisconsin. His gubernatorial platform included more environmental regulation to preserve Wisconsin’s natural spaces and more money for the University of Wisconsin system. Thompson’s supporters bred more distrust among philosophical libertarians when they bitterly complained about Thompson not receiving enough public tax money to run his campaign—a concept anathema to those truly interested in restricting government spending.

Furthermore, as his running mate, Thompson signed up retiring Democratic Assembly Representative and former Ladysmith Mayor Marty Reynolds. While Reynolds described himself as socially liberal and fiscally conservative, throughout his twelve years as a representative he represented a reliable vote for Assembly Democrats when they sought to expand taxes and spending. Yet, as is required of Northern Democrats in Wisconsin, Reynolds was staunchly in favor of individual rights with regard to firearms and property. Before picking him as his running mate, Thompson said he had never actually met Reynolds—he had only read an editorial the representative had written decrying the “corruption” at the State Capitol. Thompson praised Reynolds’ experience as a legislator, saying he would be an “active participant” in his administration, instead of “playing basketball all the time”—a thinly veiled shot at McCallum, who was known for his hard court wizardry during his brother’s administration.

On November 15, 2001, at the State Capitol, Thompson officially announced his candidacy for governor of Wisconsin. He posited himself as the everyman candidate, saying:

I am no big time Charlie. I’m just a common hard-working man who is dedicated to serving the hard-working people of Wisconsin. I’m a fighter. I’ve been in the ring many times as a boxer and there is nothing I like better than a good fight. This is the biggest fight of my life, and I plan on winning it.

Having announced he was running, it was time for Thompson to mobilize his supporters. This included Libertarian Party of Wisconsin President Bob Collison, who had introduced Thompson to Jesse Ventura. Collison had recently garnered press attention for his opposition to the U.S. Census, believing the questions asked on their survey were too personal. (Collison would later leave the Libertarian Party to make an unsuccessful run for the Wisconsin State Assembly.)

Also in the mix was Wisconsin Libertarian Vice Chair Rolf Lindgren, who in November 2003 was accused of stealing $50 out of a bar apron at the Irish Waters Tavern in Madison. After being accused of stealing the cash, Lindgren was arrested for his fourth drunk driving violation. At his trial, he pleaded insanity, testifying that the stress caused by the police accusations related to the Irish Waters incident caused him to blow a .23 on the breathalyzer (11 times the legal limit for someone with three prior drunk driving arrests).

Lindgren also said he was feeling anxiety over appearing in a documentary about Ed Thompson’s life the next morning, and suggested that his arrest was retribution for his attempt to recall Jim Doyle from the governor’s office. Said Lindgren, “it doesn’t really matter why they [filed charges]. What really matters is that they did do it. If I were a black person, I’d be charging racism. What are they saying, all white people look alike?”

The charge against Lindgren for stealing the $50 from the tavern was dropped, as the Dane County District Attorney said the prosecuting attorney needed more time to prosecute the drunk driving charge. In 2006, a jury rejected Lindgren’s insanity plea and he was sentenced to five months in jail for driving while intoxicated.

With his campaign team mobilized, Thompson hit the road in his beat-up, 20-year-old motor home. In the week following his campaign announcement, he visited Waukesha, Wausau, Superior, Eau Claire, and Sparta. On the trail, Thompson’s policy agenda began to round into shape. He espoused the benefits of lower taxes and more local government control. He pushed for legalization of marijuana and for the release of nonviolent felons from prison. He argued for term limits that would limit governors and legislators to eight years in office.

However, Thompson most often used what he thought was his most powerful talking point—that government was corrupt and it was time for a third party candidate to change it. Eventually, discussion of policy issues merely faded into the background in favor of his corruption speech. When Thompson launched his first radio ads in April 2002, they focused on the ongoing criminal investigation of the Legislature. “Our state government is being tarnished by corruption,” Thompson boomed in the ad. “Enough is enough. It’s time to put the people’s interests above special interests. We need common sense and accountability in government,” he said.

At one point in May 2002, students at a campaign appearance at Rice Lake High School asked Thompson what a Libertarian was. “It means you have the right to live your life as you want, as long as you don’t physically hurt someone and no one physically hurts you,” he said. “It takes the business attitude of the Republican Party and the social attitude of the Democratic Party and improves them,” he added.

Later that day, at Bob’s Grill in Rice Lake, an 81-year-old patron asked Thompson what life was like in Washington D.C. “No, that’s my brother,” Ed Thompson politely replied. He then mentioned that he’s three years younger but ten years smarter than Tommy, and definitely better looking.

As the campaign wound into the oppressive Wisconsin summer months, Thompson was able to set himself apart from the other candidates in one regard: his yard and highway campaign signs seemed to outnumber his opponents’ by a fifty-to-one ratio. By September, Thompson had 850 large highway signs and 9,000 yard signs out the door. Thompson’s close ties to the Wisconsin Tavern League virtually guaranteed a black and yellow Ed Thompson sign would be in front of every bar in the state. In rural Wisconsin, those bars are often the centers of civic debate. Tommy Thompson’s exploits in local bars are often credited with catapulting him to statewide recognition. It seemed his little brother may be able to capture a little of the same plainspoken magic.

Meanwhile, the race between the major party candidates raged ahead. McCallum ran a television ad that accused Attorney General Doyle of being “crooked” for not aggressively pursuing corruption in the Legislature. Doyle volunteers held a “bingo party” at a Kenosha home for the developmentally disabled where there also conveniently happened to be absentee ballots available for residents to fill out on site.

As election day grew nearer, Thompson was finding it harder and harder to take his “common man” message to the voters. For one, he was having difficulty working his way into debates, which required a candidate to earn six percent of the total vote in the primary. Since Thompson ran unopposed in the Libertarian primary, he didn’t garner enough votes. He argued, accurately, that rather than waste their vote on him, his supporters likely voted in the contested primaries between the major candidates.

Eventually, Thompson filed a complaint with the State Elections Board, arguing his exclusion amounted to an illegal campaign contribution to the major candidates. He lost the complaint, but went on to take part in minor debates throughout October. Finally, on October 29th, he participated in a debate broadcast statewide. But by that point, the race between Doyle and McCallum had turned bitter and personal, and Thompson was left without much time to speak between the bickering.

When the dust settled on election night a week later, Thompson had received 10.5% of the vote. While it wasn’t nearly enough to win, it was the largest percentage any third party candidate for governor had received in sixty years. Watching the results at the Tee Pee, Thompson seemed upbeat. “We changed the face of politics in Wisconsin,” he beamed, adding, “We’ve made the third party viable.” Furthermore, reaching the 10% vote level meant that the Libertarian Party would be validated by having an official representative on the State Elections Board.

Thompson’s supporters, however, were confused as to why their candidate didn’t fare better. Following the election, Rolf Lindgren wrote an editorial claiming that Ed Thompson hadn’t been beaten by the voters; he had instead been beaten by the polls. In the column (in which he listed his credential as “1986 UW-Madison Mathematics Graduate,”) Lindgren expressed disbelief that Thompson only received 10.5% of the vote, when a poll prior to the election had Thompson’s approval rating at 39%. Since a candidate merely had to receive 34% to win the three-way election, Lindgren was confused as to why Thompson wasn’t able to garner enough support to emerge victorious. Apparently, he was unaware that approval ratings measure a candidate’s popularity against only themselves, while actual elections pit candidates against each other.

Lindgren went on to argue, as only a 1986 mathematics graduate could, that polls published during the campaign that showed Thompson with single digit support actually depressed his popularity. Lindgren believed the polls showing (accurately, as it turned out) Thompson with little support drove away individuals that normally would have been supporters. “In hindsight, if he had done a few more polls at key moments, and put out a few more polls-related press releases, he might have won the election,” said Lindgren.

The debate still rages in Wisconsin about whether Ed Thompson handed the state over to Jim Doyle by stealing votes from McCallum. Conventional wisdom tells us that since Libertarians are further to the right, they steal votes from Republicans. Thus, the GOP immediately groused that Thompson’s 10.5% vote total may have swung the race to the incumbent Governor had “Fightin’ Ed” not run.

The numbers seem to indicate that, even had Thompson not run, a McCallum victory would have been a long shot. When Thompson’s 185,000 votes are divided up, McCallum would have had to win 67.7% of them to overcome Doyle’s 66,000-vote margin. While it is true that Thompson did extremely well in GOP-dominated counties like his home Monroe County (Thompson 45%, McCallum 27%, Doyle 26%), Thompson also pulled substantial votes out of the city of Madison, likely due to his support for legalized marijuana. (It is estimated Thompson received 100% of the vote from the much sought-after “dudes who make late night trips to Taco Bell” demographic.)

Additionally, rather than merely being a Libertarian, Ed Thompson was a once-in-a-generation cult of personality. There’s no evidence that his votes were from people who lean Libertarian. It’s possible his votes were comprised of voters sick of the two parties generally and who recognized his family name as a safe haven for their vote. His addition of Marty Reynolds to the ticket may have made it even easier for Democrats to vote for him.

On the other hand, it is possible that Thompson pulled more votes from Republicans than Democrats. Aside from the votes on election day, Thompson’s entry into the race drew other types of resources away from the major candidates—he was able to raise and spend over $400,000, which may have favored McCallum, had Thompson not been able to get his hands on it. Furthermore, the curiosity of Thompson’s campaign took up media time that may have changed the face of the race had he not been in it (although given the press McCallum was getting at the time, it might have been better for him to get less coverage throughout the campaign).

Whether Ed Thompson gift-wrapped the 2002 election for Democrat Jim Doyle, we can never really know (although Doyle did defeat a strong Republican challenger, Republican Congressman Mark Green, in 2006). What we do know is that third parties in Wisconsin are a force to be reckoned with. While many regard third parties as a motley group of political nutballs, they have what the major candidates need—votes.

Given the proclivity of Wisconsin voters to cast their ballots for a third party, the 2008 presidential election could hinge on how well candidates relate to these third party voters. With Wisconsin’s traditional razor-thin margins of victory, the major candidate who appeals most to third party voters could be the one who emerges victorious. Senators John McCain and Barack Obama need to tap into the wealth of Wisconsin votes that could easily stray into third party territory. With big names like Former Congressman (and star of “Borat”) Bob Barr running as a Libertarian, Former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney seeking the Green Party nomination, and Ralph Nader doing whatever it is he does, independent voters could very well decide Wisconsin, and therefore the presidency.

In 2005, three years after his gubernatorial run, Ed Thompson was elected to the city council back in Tomah. The problem was, he didn’t know he was running. Thompson had benefited from a write-in vote effort of which he was unaware. After receiving 31 of 34 votes, he begrudgingly took office. In 2007, Thompson flirted with the idea of running for president himself after aligning himself with a group of “9/11 Truthers” who believe the U.S. government had a role in the September 11, 2001, attacks. In 2008, he was once again sworn in as Mayor of Tomah, assuming the comfortable position he had left to run for governor. It appears he is now content to be an important footnote in Wisconsin’s political history—one that major candidates should not soon forget.

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