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Feingold Tells the DSCC: Keep Your Money

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) is making some major ad buys, shoring up Democrats facing tight races in a number of states including Colorado, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, West Virginia, Illinois, Delaware, Connecticut and Washington. One place you probably won’t see the group spending money, however, is Wisconsin:

An ardent campaign reformer (who teamed up with former maverick John McCain to pass landmark 2002 campaign finance legislation), [Wisconsin Senator Russ] Feingold defied the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) in his white-knuckle 1998 campaign by demanding it take its attack ads off the air in Wisconsin. Feingold’s objection was that these commercials were being paid for with unregulated “soft money” that his campaign reform legislation was then attempting to ban.

But this time around (even though political donations to the DSCC are now regulated by the McCain-Feingold act), Feingold is equally adamant that the party committee should let him fight his own battles against Johnson. (The DSCC, which is running advertising in six states, has not been on the air in Wisconsin).

“It’s because these are almost always inherently attack ads based on cookie-cutter notions of how you should talk to the people of Wisconsin,” Feingold responded after I pressed him for a reason for his stubborn resistance to a DSCC ad campaign. “I don’t want that kind of help,” Feingold said moments later. “I consider it to be outside help of a kind that is uncontrolled and tends to believe in a philosophy of slash-and-burn politics. That’s frankly not who I am. I don’t want to win that way.”

Feingold’s refusal to accept DSCC spending on his behalf is alternatively getting categorized as stubborn and foolish or principled and brave. Loyola Law School’s Rick Hasen, for his part, notes that it’s highly ironic for Feingold to even act like he has some say in the matter, as independent expenditures made by the DSCC must, by law, be made without any sort of coordination with the Feingold campaign.

I think the majority of both the praise and the criticism is missing the point, however. Feingold has built his reputation on being an independent voice, and it’s given him credibility among a good number of Wisconsin voters. Inviting groups like the DSCC to come into the state and spend money isn’t just a matter of principles, but a matter of strategy, and the potential for it to backfire is real. In a year when Feingold’s Republican opponent Ron Johnson is doing everything to tie him to the Obama-Pelosi-Reid agenda, Feingold might just be making the right call by telling the committees to keep their money.

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