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.
(As Thomas Jefferson once observed about Congress, “he who smelt it dealt it.” Actually, maybe that wasn’t Jefferson. Adams, perhaps.)
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 Wispolitics.com 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 Democrat 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. (Preferably after the public has been given some wine and a good back rub.)
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 of l’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.”