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 in The 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 Politico.com 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 Moveon.org. 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 MoveOn.org 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, 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. (The show was able to overcome the snub by scheduling high-level political observers like Meghan McCain to participate in its roundtable. Presumably, Sasha and Malia Obama were unavailable.)
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 most 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.”