A report from what may be the last campaign of Sen. Russ Feingold.
If voters are benefiting, then why don't they know it? "The rhetoric of the Republicans here is to pretend that it did absolutely nothing," said Feingold. "I don't think the issue is decisive—I think that in the end, people know we had to do it. It didn't solve the whole problem. They're looking for the belief that things will get better more quickly. The question is who is more likely to get that done."
Feingold has an advantage that some endangered Democrats are lacking: He's genuinely adored by his base. The idea that he could lose is not just shocking but also cosmically unfair. Eighteen years working on campaign finance reform and the Supreme Court unspools his legislation? A lifetime of public service that's kept him poor, and he's being out-man-of-the-peopled by a wealthy industrialist? It doesn't matter that Democrats are actually withstanding the "secret money" onslaught with money of their own—it just doesn't seem fair. In Rhinelander, a local activist named Kay Hoff, who stressed that she's the winner of the "Eleanor Roosevelt award" for political activism, hoisted a sign that read, "I Don't Want My Government Run Like a Plastics Factory."
"Call me foolish," says Rep. Ron Kind, who is in a dogfight to keep representing Eau Claire. "But I think it's important that we still have one poor person serving in the Senate. If Johnson buys this election, he'd be the 72nd multimillionaire in the Senate."
And that's a huge part of the Feingold closing message: Johnson's one of them. At his Eau Claire rally, Feingold says that Johnson's "support for shipping Wisconsin jobs to other countries has been a gamechanger," that every major state newspaper is endorsing Feingold because Johnson won't talk about what he'd do if elected, and that voting against Feingold is handing a victory to the moneyed interests that are robbing them.
"He's got over $2 million of those hidden ads, those Citizens United ads that we haven't seen before," says Feingold. "Chamber of Commerce, you know, runs these ads. They just bought $700,000 for the next five days. Nobody has any idea where the money's coming from or who it is."
A voice in the crowd growls "China!" It's not clear whether Feingold can hear it, but he answers it anyway.
"We have a pretty good idea, don't we? It's the huge corporate interests that already dominate our government, and Mr. Johnson says that's OK!"
If Feingold loses his seat, Wisconsin Democrats will know why. It was purchased at a discount. Voters were softened up by Fox News and talk radio and didn't realize what the party was doing for them, that the economy was coming back. "We're not good at tooting our own horns," grumbles Dean Scanlon, a laborer making calls for the Democrats.
"Nobody's real happy right now," Feingold tells me, "but they're sure not happy with the Republicans." The trick for Democrats in Wisconsin—across the de-industrializing Midwest, really—is convincing voters that they can trace their problems to big money and free trade, and that they'll be more unhappy with the Republicans than they are now with the Democrats.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of Russ Feingold by Mira Oberman/AFP/Getty Images.