Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) makes his concession speech to his supporters Tuesday in Middleton, Wis., after losing to Republican challenger Ron Johnson for the Wisconsin U.S. Senate seat.
Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, the Democratic half of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, lost his bid for a fourth term Tuesday. The 2002 law was the high-water mark in the regulation of money in national politics, but a Supreme Court ruling this year whittled away at his best-known legislation.
Feingold arrived in Washington, D.C., as an outsider. In 1992, his first Senate race, he produced rather off-kilter campaign ads.
"They said I couldn't beat an incumbent state senator. But I did," Feingold said in one ad. "Now they say I won't be your next United States senator, 'cause I don't have a fortune to spend on expensive TV commercials like my opponents. But I don't think wild spending is what people want in a senator anyway."
After he was elected — and even re-elected — Feingold never became an inside player.
"He made that decision when he came in — that the way he wanted to serve as a senator was not to go along to get along, or even to climb the leadership ladder," says Meredith McGehee, a good-government lobbyist who worked with Feingold on campaign finance issues.
So Feingold's biggest legacy is the law he crafted with Republican Sen. John McCain — a law that stanched the flow of six- and seven-figure checks into the national party committees and stopped members of Congress from soliciting similar contributions for anyone else.
Before the final floor vote, Feingold pleaded, "In this moment, we can show the American people that we are the Senate that they want us to be. We can pass this legislation and put our lasting mark on the record of democracy."
Messing with the fundraising laws is one sure way to aggravate the leadership on Capitol Hill. And Feingold found others.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, he was the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act giving federal authorities new investigative powers. And he has consistently opposed the war in Afghanistan.
But meanwhile, conservatives filed lawsuits that whittled away at McCain-Feingold. And in January, the Supreme Court crippled it. The court's Citizens United decision allows corporations and unions to spend all the money they want on ads promoting or attacking individual candidates.
Democrats called a hearing, and Feingold was the first witness.
"This terrible decision deserves as robust a response as possible. Nothing less than the future of our democracy is at stake," he said.
But the response took months to emerge, and it died in the Senate.
This fall, outside money groups, mostly on the right, flooded congressional campaigns with attack ads. In some races, they outspent the candidates.
McGehee, the good-government lobbyist, says lawmakers who will work to toughen up the campaign finance laws are few and far between.
"You really have to have somebody pretty courageous that wants to come in because they know it needs to be done, knowing that it's going to make them unpopular often with their colleagues, but knowing it's incredibly important for the country," she says.
And it's a good thing there aren't more of them, says Cleta Mitchell, a campaign finance lawyer who worked on the team opposing the McCain-Feingold law.
"The more we can try to wind that down, the better, and undo the damage that people like Russ Feingold have done. I'm not sorry to see him go," Mitchell says.
As to where he will go, Feingold gave a buildup during his concession speech Tuesday night.
"It is on to our next adventure! Forward," he said. But he left it at that.