In the Arena

Election Road Trip, Day 8: The Feingold Race

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Senator Russ Feingold in Madison, Wisconsin. Photograph by Peter van Agtmael- Magnum for TIME

Middleton, Wisconsin

Traveling Companion: Jim Pinkerton

Event: Russ Feingold interview

Here’s something I’ve been noticing: more than a few Republicans don’t want to come out and play this year. Couldn’t find hide nor hair of Pat Toomey, the Senate candidate in Pennsylvania (and I offered to visit him during the week before the road trip began). Here in Wisconsin, where incumbent Sen. Russ Feingold is facing Republican Ron Johnson, the indefatigable Katy Steinmetz–round of applause here–worked the phones relentlessly over the weekend, but couldn’t prise a schedule, much less an interview, out of his campaign staff for today. (We checked with a local political reporter who said this was not an uncommon experience). “He’s the country club version of Rand Paul and Sharron Angle,” said Feingold, whose seat Johnson is trying to win. “He says three things about me: I’m a career politician. I have no plan to replace the jobs that have been lost. And I’m helping the President run up the deficit. Doesn’t say a word about what he would do, of course.”

Feingold is in a tough race, pretty much a dead heat right now, because of the general dyspeptic spirit in the electorate. But he’s confident he’ll win, in large part because his maverick, populist record has keep him outside both Democratic and Republican orthodoxy on some of the most important issues this year: He’s opposed free trade deals, which he says is the primary cause of lost jobs in Wisconsin.

At least one economic mind would beg to differ. Upon hearing this claim, a University of Wisconsin professor simply said, “No. Free trade is not the cause of our current recession, and our current recession is the primary cause of lost jobs.” Said professor would not even venture a guess as to what portion of the jobs in Wisconsin had been lost due to trade deals. – Katy, Joe’s trip wrangler and your friendly neighborhood fact-checker

He opposed the bank bailouts, but favored the auto industry plan. He even voted against the Financial Reform bill that Obama squeezed through the Congress because it didn’t restore the Glass-Steagall firewall between consumer and investment banking that was eliminated during the Clinton years, and also because it didn’t do enough to eliminate “too big to fail” protections. “And I’ve been consistently tough on fiscal responsibility. I voted against the Medicare drug bill because it wasn’t paid for.”

Senator Russ Feingold during an interview in Madison, Wisconsin. Photograph by Peter van Agtmael- Magnum for TIME

He did favor Obama’s stimulus package and points out that there are 7 times as many highway construction workers at work in Wisconsin this year as there were last. “I joke about being late to events because of all the traffic jams,” he said–which is accurate: I can attest that you can’t drive a half hour on an interstate in this country without encountering a lane closure.

Not having a source for Feingold’s claim about highway workers makes it hard to check (and we welcome info on that), but according to BLS data, there were more people employed in Wisconsin’s “trade, transportation and utilities” industry in July 2009 than July 2010. In the heavy and civil engineering category, which explicitly includes highway construction, the lowest data point from 2009 still showed more than half the number of jobs now.

We talked about some of the strong anti-bailout feelings I’d been encountering in recent meetings with voters, how people were particularly annoyed about the help Obama was giving to people who were facing foreclosure. “Those feelings are warranted,” Feingold said. “You’re getting into a very dicey area there. There a real equity issue at stake: what about the people who were responsible when it came to buying a house and getting a mortgage? Why should they have to help those who weren’t?” he said. “Although you always want to help people in distress. But that brings it back to regulation: remember when you had to put down 25% cash to buy a house? If we still had rules like that, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Feingold remains a strong supporter of the President’s policies, if not his politics. “They sent out the infantry–that would be people like me–to defend the policies without providing any air cover.” But he’s optimistic about the campaign: “I think the votes I’ve taken stand me in good stead this year,” he said, correctly. “I have a strong libertarian streak. I opposed expanding the war in Afghanistan, which is  a very popular position out here. My opponent has said that after he takes a vote on a war, he won’t question the war or hold hearings on it–that’s not the way it works! I also opposed the Patriot Act, and I still think it’s just plain wrong. If I remember correctly, Joe, you and I were on different sides on that one.”

Yes, we were…and we still are. But I will say this: when I disagree with Feingold, I know his position is deeply held and thought through–and never taken as a result of a campaign contribution. I wish I could say that about more members of Congress. For that reason, I’d be in favor of him sitting in the U.S. Senate even if we disagreed on everything. His is a voice that needs to be heard–and his opponent, so far as I can tell, appears to be mute.

Joe Klein and traveling companion Jim Pinkerton outside a Starbucks in Madison, Wisconsin. Photograph by Peter van Agtmael- Magnum for TIME

This post is part of my Election Road Trip 2010 project. To track my location across the country, and read all my road trip posts, click here.