Pro-gun, anti-bank, and a staunch defender of civil liberties, Russ Feingold should appeal to the Tea Party crowd.
Here's a quick political quiz:
Which candidate running for U.S. Senate this year just released a radio ad attacking his opponent for being insufficiently vigilant about citizens' Second Amendment rights?
Hint: This candidate frequently invokes the Constitution, and has taken lone-wolf positions opposing government wiretapping and other forms of Big Brother-like over-reaching. This candidate also opposed the Obama Administration's recently passed financial reform legislation, saying it did doesn't end "too big to fail" and won't stop more bailouts of the banks.
Nope. Make that Senator Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin.
Feingold's campaign just released a radio ad that slams Republican opponent Ron Johnson for his wishy-washy position on gun control. Johnson, an Oshkosh businessman who has the backing of Tea Party groups, including Liberty Central in Alexandria, VA, answered a question about what limits he would support on gun ownership before a group called the Rock River Patriots: “You know, like we license cars and stuff, I don’t have a real problem in a minimal licensing and stuff,” Johnson said.
"I’m not a gun owner, " Johnson conceded, sounding like a lot of Russ Feingold's liberal, Democratic supporters. Basically, he said, he supports the right to bear arms, but doesn't mind the idea of some government supervision.
Bad answer, said Feingold.
In the radio ad, entitled "Stuff," which you can hear on his campaign website, the maverick Democratic Senator follows up comments from an unnamed "lifelong hunter and proud gun-owner" from Wisconsin. "Let me get this straight," says the hunter. " . . . [ Ron Johnson] supports licensing guns like cars?! Well, Ron, that ain't freedom."
Then Feingold chimes in: "I'm Russ Feingold, and I approved this message, because you shouldn't have to wait in line at the DMV to get a license for your Constitutional rights and freedoms."
It's a message that will play well in Northern Wisconsin, but might come as a surprise to Feingold's national, progressive fan base.
A lot of people don't realize that Feingold has been a Second Amendment supporter for as long as he's been in office. In fact, his campaign points out, he wrote his senior thesis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on the importance of the Second Amendment.
On the list of Feingold's other pro-gun stances, courtesy of his campaign, are the Senator's votes "to allow people to bring concealed weapons across state lines," "to carry loaded guns in national parks," an amicus brief to the Supreme Court "supporting the overturning of the Chicago handgun ban," his vote "in favor of amendment to restore gun ownership rights to the people of Washington, DC," and his praise of the Supreme Court for overturning the DC handgun ban.
His website includes laudatory comments from his friend and colleague on the Judiciary Committee, Senator Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, saying, “Senator Feingold is probably one of the strongest gun guys in the Senate."
That's a far cry from Feingold's national reputation as one of the most left-leaning Senators.
But it fits right in with his maverick, independent reputation at home.
As Wisconsinites who voted for both Russ Feingold and George W. Bush can tell you, party identification is not everything.
That may serve Feingold well in 2010, in a midterm election that all the pundits expect to be a referendum on President Obama--and, of course, on the party that holds power during this long and miserable recession.
The Republicans, including Ron Johnson, have made a lot of hay about the stimulus bill--claiming it was a flop and a waste of taxpayer money. They have run ads all over the country tying Obama and the Democrats to Wall Street and the bank bailouts.
While Feingold stands by his support of the stimulus, he voted against all the bank bailouts and, going further, was an outlier on financial reform--voting against it, even as he criticized Wall Street.
The Democratic leadership and some national advocacy groups tried to get his constituents to bombard his office with phone calls demanding that he back financial reform. But privately, some advocates on the issue applauded him. Feingold's reasons, after all, were rooted not in the bank lobbyists' position--which fueled the Republican opposition to the bill. Instead, Feingold was disgusted with the fact that the bill didn't go far enough. Way back when he was a state senator he had worked on bank regulation in Wisconsin, and over the decades, as regulations on the banks loosened, he stuck to his guns, voting against the repeal of Glass-Steagall, and warning against expanding the banks' power.
On other issues, most notably the Patriot Act, Feingold has been more of a defender of the Constitution than the Tea Partiers who wave the Constitution like a banner.
At a Tea Party rally last spring on the lawn outside the state capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin, a libertarian, anti-government sentiment that has deep roots in Wisconsin was on display. A certain Oshkosh businessman named Ron Johnson gave voice to it when he spoke to the crowd, denouncing the "lapdog mainstream media" for ignoring government intrusions on our civil liberties, including warrantless wiretapping and subpoenaes for citizens' library records.
Hey, remember the Wisconsin Senator who made an issue of that? He was the one who cast the lone vote in the Senate against the Patriot Act, on the grounds that it shredded Americans' Constitutional Rights.
It turns out he is also the state's biggest defender of the Second Amendment.
Forget Ron Johnson. The real Tea Party candidate is Russ Feingold.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her piece "Cecile Richards Campaigns for Choice in 2010."
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