The amount of money pumped into elections must be brought under control or American's confidence in the political process will collapse under the dominance of large campaign contributions. Americans believe that campaigns are too long, too expensive, and too negative. In my opinion, all these negative characteristics are stoked by the influence of big campaign contributions coming from interest groups and the national parties.
In 1998, I felt that it was important to run a campaign that was true to the principles that Senator McCain and I had introduced in our legislation. Furthermore, I felt that campaign finance should be one of the central issues of my campaign. I set out to tell the voters of Wisconsin about who was seeking to elect their officials and then to ask the voters to take charge of their own elections. I think that it is appropriate to call this effort a "restrained" campaign.
My central purpose was to show that an incumbent could limit his spending - I am one of the few members of the U.S. Senate to ever voluntarily limit spending. It was never my plan to "do anything" to win. I wanted to win the campaign in a way that would make the public feel good about the process and would allow me to feel that I had done something to elevate the process. Roughly a century after the Progressive Movement swept reform through Wisconsin, I felt that it was important to be true to these principles rather than merely be elected.
Decreasing the Importance of Big Money
A "restrained" campaign, as I envisioned it, would incorporate concepts from the McCain-Feingold bill. In 1998 my campaign made and lived up to ten promises that limited the influence of campaign contributions. To follow these promises and decrease the importance of big money, here are a few of the guidelines of a "restrained" campaign:
A "restrained" campaign is set apart also by the fact that it makes a commitment to go more directly to the people. I have made this commitment not just in election season, but throughout my six years in office. In 1992, I made a promise to visit every county every year. I made good on that promise when I held my 432nd listening session last spring. Over the course of six years of Listening Sessions, I have heard the concerns of over 20,000 Wisconsinites.
This commitment also applies to the campaign trail. By not having to spend so much time raising campaign contributions on the phone, I was able to spend more time in the summer and fall mingling with constituents at events that did not have a cover charge. A couple of examples illustrate the time commitment that I was personally able to make in contacting voters. I continued a Wisconsin tradition of William Proxmire by devoting much of nearly two weeks during the Senate's summer recess shaking the hands of voters at the Wisconsin State Fair in the late summer of 1998. Most candidates spend the summer recess locked in a continual race to find more contributions.
Additionally, in the last month of the campaign when most candidates are frantically trying to track down funds, I was able to focus my time on travelling the state, talking to voters, and trying to raise important issues with voters and the press. I did not make a single fund-raising call in the last three and one-half weeks of the campaign. In fact, at an event a week before the election, I asked my supporters to stop sending money. This was an alarming statement to the other elected officials in the room.
Vulnerabilities of This Type of Campaign
The thought of limiting campaign spending is anathema to most incumbents. After entering the Wisconsin State Senate in 1982 and then coming to Washington in 1992, the main advantage of incumbency appeared to be that the coffers of special interests flowed almost without limit. Choosing to close those coffers will undoubtedly make some incumbents vulnerable. Knowing that my opponent and his supporters would heavily outspend me - a rarity in Senate elections today - I chose to close those coffers and accepted the obvious political risks that came with voluntary compliance to a set of campaign rules. In so doing, I may have made the election more interesting than I had planned.
Running a "restrained" campaign imposes limits. Collateral materials such as yard signs and bumper stickers are limited in this type of campaign. It means, more importantly, that fewer campaign spots will be aired. My campaign plan designated roughly $800,000 for the closing media campaign. Working backwards from the election, that meant that I would not be able to run ads in the late summer when most incumbents are dominating the airwaves. I enjoyed a fifteen percent lead over my opponent in mid-August. During the next month the Wisconsin Republican Party ran what I estimated to be nearly $2 million in "issue advocacy" spots for my opponent. At the end of that month polls showed that the race had closed to six percent. While my opponent's campaign agreed to many of the criteria of a "restrained" campaign listed above, he clearly benefited from the help of the Republican Party and allied organizations. In fact, when spending by all groups is totaled, I was outspent nearly three-to-one.
One of the toughest things in a situation like this, where I was limited in my spending, was that (a) I necessarily couldn't respond to the attack at the time that I wanted to, and (b) when there were a number of roughly simultaneous attacks, I couldn't respond to all of them. Some of these attacks simply had to be let go. For example, there were ads about the flag burning amendment, which I felt to be extremely harsh and unfair. My campaign responded in speeches and letters but chose not to respond with additional ads. The goal of running all those ads was to distract the campaign from my main issues of campaign finance reform and Social Security. So instead we chose to take the "high road" and continue to talk about what was going on with the political process, and to get people to feel that that was a very important matter, instead of responding to each and every charge. This is perhaps the most difficult element that candidates will find in abiding by the voluntary limits. Pundits, consultants, and supporters will constantly urge the candidate to use all the resources and let no charges go unanswered. That simply is the way the campaigns have come to be run.
"Restrained" campaigns are clearly vulnerable to candidates who choose either to blow through the rational limitations discussed above or to use loopholes in campaign finance law. My opponent, like many candidates, exploited every possible loophole of current campaign finance law.
The national parties' role in raising soft money is roughly comparable to a giant laundering scheme. Candidates for office are calling up wealthy individuals and groups and asking them for sums upwards of a quarter or half a million dollars. The candidates simply call and say "send it to the Democratic party, it's designated for me." It's like the OK Corral where rules simply do not seem to apply to soft money. I could have easily blown through my voluntary campaign spending limits and raised another several million dollars through out-of-state contributors and soft money to cover the cost of running an additional two or three months of ads. But at what cost to the process?
At a campaign meeting in 1996, some supporters said to me, "How much are you going to spend on your re-election, Russ? $7 million, $8 million, $9 million, what do you want to do?" I told them that I wanted to show "restraint", to spend less than any recent incumbent in Wisconsin. They responded that I would "have to grow up and get over that." And I literally looked at them and said, "Then you'll have to get yourself a different candidate," because I didn't want to go through this process of raising nine or ten million dollars and then turning around and saying that I was truly dedicated to changing the system.
From a personal point of view, I also did not want to spend all that time raising money. I wanted to win and do my job without having to spend a couple of years on the telephone. I wanted to be able to take my case to the people and persuade them that I was the person to be elected.
Focus on the Voters
A "restrained" campaign requires an incumbent to focus on the groups, people and voters of their districts or states. To run this style of campaign, the incumbent should spend more time with constituents. In fact, this is one area where a "restrained" campaign can counter a well-funded opponent. By expressing a willingness to travel the state and hear the concerns of constituents, both during and after campaign season, I was able to meet thousands of Wisconsinites. One reporter characterized my '92 pledge to visit every county every year as the "stupidest" promise a politician had ever made. Six years later, I was re-elected to the U.S. Senate.
There is a presumption among consultants that a focus on the voters by incumbents "makes you feel good but does not help." Their argument goes that because the incumbent's name recognition is already high, there is no measurable benefit to interacting with voters at events. There is more to this focus than simply doing a cost-benefit analysis on the candidate's time. Spending time with constituents made me a better candidate. I spent much of the summer and all of the last month of the campaign visiting senior citizen centers and college campuses. This time and the Listening Sessions mentioned above, gave me a better sense of the issues than the opinion polls provided. I also felt that there was a spiritual value for the political process that came from my interactions with constituents. I was doing my part to elevate the political process.
My "restrained" campaign implemented a very aggressive grass-roots field plan.1 Despite limitations imposed by a spending cap of $3.85 million, I chose not to ignore certain parts of the state. The campaign employed field staff in all nine of the state's congressional districts in addition to numerous other field, media, and support staff so that I could take my campaign directly to the voters.
While campaigns have been moving more and more in the direction of extreme targeting (through both television and mail), my "restrained" campaign holds out for the value of knocking on people's doors. Starting in late August, volunteers were out "door-knocking" under the supervision of field staff in every area of the state. Excluding election weekend, these volunteers literally knocked on the doors of over 130,000 Wisconsin households and interacted with a substantial portion of those voters. My campaign did not ignore direct mail or television advertising; it simply was based on a plan that balanced their benefits with those of a grass-roots operation.
I wanted to motivate people, by limiting spending, to take control of the campaign. And that is exactly what happened. We could only order 5,000 yard signs. In Wisconsin, that's a big problem. So people made their own or they brought out signs from 1992. They did the same thing with literature. People were taking it upon themselves to make copies of newspaper articles and editorials to distribute to their neighbors. This is what I had hoped would happen. My campaign reinvigorated many voters (1998 turnout was up for a midterm election in Wisconsin) and restored some faith in the process.
Alternative Campaign Techniques
Because of the limitations a "restrained" campaign experiences, it is essential to seek out new ways to maximize resources. In 1992, I took the rare step of releasing a two-minute campaign ad. While that obviously meant fewer overall spots were shown, coverage from statewide media gave the ads greater exposure than placing them into 30-second sound bites would have provided. My campaign also had a well-developed, award-winning site on the World Wide Web to provide issue statements, stories, copies of ads, contacts with the campaign, etc. Also, I was able to garner an extensive list of endorsements from local officials. This attracted significant local media attention without having to spend scarce advertising dollars.
Dealing with Outside Groups
One issue that candidates who choose to run "restrained" campaigns will likely have to confront is the issue of spending by groups outside the candidate's campaign. My campaign encountered a number of different aspects of this issue. First, there are party-sponsored, soft-money financed phony "issue" advocacy ads. In today's campaigns these ads are totally coordinated in the subject matter with the content of candidates' campaign ads. In one of the advocacy ads that the Wisconsin Republican Party ran during the fall of the campaign, they actually had detailed footage of my opponent building a house, and graduation pictures of his kids. The claim that this was somehow an uncoordinated fluke is beyond belief. I publicly announced my intention to refuse issue advocacy ads. I told Senators Kerrey and Daschle that "I do not want these ads. I do not want soft money help in my race." They accepted that and abided by their word.
I was, however, to be hit several months later by "friendly fire." In mid-October, someone at the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee decided to buy over a million dollars worth of hard-money independent expenditure ads. I found this out when I got a call from a Wisconsin TV station as I was traveling across the state. It was very troublesome to me that the national party would come in and run any ad, let alone the very negative ad they chose which is uncharacteristic of the styles of campaigns that I have always run. My campaign proceeded with some success to shut down those ads but not before $200,000 worth of ads had been run. As far as I'm concerned, all those ads did was to damage my campaign.
The national parties have an obvious desire to win seats in Congress. Candidates who choose to run "restrained" campaigns will undoubtedly have to deal with skeptical party officials. Hopefully, my experience has provided some reason for them to be less skeptical.
Group-sponsored advocacy ads are also an issue. I have always run campaigns on my own and urged groups not to run these ads in my campaigns, but I cannot ask them to restrict their First Amendment right to speak on behalf of their issues. This is an important aspect of the voluntary nature of the "restrained" campaign. I did not ask for groups such as the League of Conservation Voters and AFL-CIO to run ads on my behalf. In fact, I publicly and repeatedly urged these groups and others not to run ads. Until more candidates are willing to stand up and urge groups not to "help", these ads will continue.
The benefits of running a "restrained" campaign were obvious to me after I was sworn in. I am not beholden to PACs or large interest groups. Because I only needed to raise a limited amount of campaign contributions, there is no interest group that is terribly central or important to me. I do not feel burdened or hemmed in by a financial tug because of the total limits imposed on what I spent. Politicians who raise substantial portions of the campaign funds from these groups must, at a minimum, pay attention to the demands of these groups. Clearly these demands weigh on the votes of elected officials. What happens when these demands run counter to the interests of the constituents? Or the candidate's own views? I think that many candidates feel at least a psychological debt when confronted with these conflicting preferences. Running a "restrained" campaign relieves those conflicts.
By running a "restrained" campaign I was also not beholden to the national party. Having faced a tight battle for re-election and having won without the assistance of the national party, I do not feel pressured by financial considerations in my opposition to administration measures or activities that run counter to the interests of my constituents. If my opponent had won, it is reasonable to speculate that Senator McConnell, who does not have the right to vote in Wisconsin, but who steered millions of dollars from the National Republican Senate Committee to this state, would have the ear of that opponent, especially on the issue of campaign finance. The national parties should not have the ability to buy such access.
Finally, running a "restrained" campaign takes my seat back to the voters
of Wisconsin. If nothing else, it gives me six more years to listen to
Senator Russ Feinberg has been representing the state of Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate since he was first elected in 1992. Prior to that election, he served for 10 years in the Wisconsin state senate. He is a Rhodes Scholar with a law degree from Harvard University.
1. My statewide field director, Steve Kean, a University of Oklahoma
doctoral candidate in political science, oversaw the design and implementation
of the field plan.