Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Is Feingold the Hillary of Wisconsin Democrats?

For better or worse, the similarities between the two are many.

By - Jun 8th, 2015 12:25 pm
Russ Feingold

Russ Feingold

Russ Feingold returns to Wisconsin politics as the Hillary Clinton of Wisconsin Democrats. After all, veteran Beloit College Political Science Professor Georgia Duerst-Lahti notes, both are “high status, well known, have clear records, experienced, savvy about both campaigning and the press.”

Looking more closely, other similarities between Feingold and Hillary are clear:

*Both are former U.S. senators, ex-diplomats and party leaders for decades who took some time off to – they hope – return for triumphal 2016 next acts. Feingold was a state senator and U.S. senator from 1983 until 2010,  and most recently served as a special U.S. State Department ambassador to Africa. He wants to win his old Senate seat back next year by defeating Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson. Clinton was First Lady in President Bill Clinton’s White House between 1993 and 2001, elected a U.S. senator from New York and then served as U.S. secretary of state from 2009-2013 before stepping back to carefully plan her campaign for President.

*Both are trying to bounce back from political defeats. Feingold lost to Johnson in 2010, and President Barack Obama defeated Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008.

*Both are trying to avoid being lashed to their party’s not-so-popular president. In his first public speech since returning to Wisconsin politics at the state Democratic Party convention, Feingold mentioned Obama twice, and one of those was when he noted that the President had named him special “envoy to the Great Lakes Region of Africa.”

Feingold also mentioned his opposition to “secretive trade deals that are sold on the false promise of elusive global profits” – a reference to both President Obama’s proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership and the NAFTA deal that another Democratic President, Bill Clinton, pushed through Congress in the 1990s. In his speech, Feingold did not mention his opposition to Obama’s demands that the Patriot Act be continued. Feingold was the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act.

For her part, Hillary Clinton is also trying to thread the needle of Democratic champion with a different agenda than Obama.

*Both get star billing from state and local party leaders. Feingold got beloved “comeback kid” treatment at the Democratic Party convention. He got a prime speaking spot Friday night for his first public speech selling hope to Democrats who have been beaten up for five years by Republican Gov. Scott Walker and GOP lawmakers. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has three lesser-known challengers for the presidential nomination, none serious threats, and is the overwhelming party favorite.

*Both are running on their own terms, staying away – for now – from reporters and billing themselves as populist champions of an American middle-class that is under siege and unfairly taxed.

According to Feingold’s Facebook page, his recent one-person campaign stops were: Madison farmers’ market May 26, Memorial Day weekend stops at the Plover monument for Korean War veterans and at veterans graves in Forest Hill cemetery in Madison, buying Gilles Frozen Custard in Milwaukee on May 18, admiring an African-American barber’s work in Milwaukee on May 16, and other stops in Milwaukee, Allenton, Fond du Lac and Appleton May 15. One Feingold Facebook post noted “all the different ways Russ’s early supporters make a living…This campaign is about recognizing and honoring everyone’s hard work.”

Clinton has also stressed the one-of-us themes in carefully orchestrated visits to small businesses and other forums she can control. Her first visit to Iowa included stops at a branch campus of Kirkwood Community College and a roundtable at Capital City Fruit in Norwalk, the Des Moines Register reported.

*Both are Baby Boomers. Feingold is 62; Clinton, 67.

Duerst-Lahti also notes how carefully both Clinton and Feingold are managing their public images – for now – through social media and scripted public appearances. Feingold’s campaign has dozens of requests for interviews that it is – for now – turning down. “Not yet,” reporters are being told.

“Candidates and elected officials gain many advantages in controlling image and message by being very public, through their own websites, Facebook, sympathetic blogs, and most surprising to me, Tweets,” says Duerst-Lahti, who recently reworked a class curriculum to focus on how politicians use social media.

Now, the professor adds, “It is possible to go directly to the people and bypass the traditional press and the uncertainty it introduces.” Feingold and Clinton “do not need the press to get the word out on these assets” he adds. “If anything, they work to correct the record when the mainstream media gets something wrong.”

But that strategy will change closer to the November 2016 elections, Duerst-Lahti says: “Candidates will turn to the mainstream press closer to the election. Coming out too early gives more opportunity for inaccuracies, gaffes, or other blunders, which gives fodder to the opposition.”

One notable difference between Feingold and Clinton is personal wealth. The Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Foundation was paid $26 million in recent years for their worldwide speeches, the Washington Post reported.

What Feingold, a Janesville native, was paid by as a special State Department emissary and for teaching at Stanford University hasn’t been disclosed. It wasn’t $26 million, though.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at

One thought on “The State of Politics: Is Feingold the Hillary of Wisconsin Democrats?”

  1. Andy says:

    “The Hillary”..?

    No. Feingold is actually progressive. Hillary is just saying some nice words without the record to back those words up. I get the connections you’re making between the two but as far as policy goes, the two are about as far apart as two democrats can be.

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