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Campaign Finance Limits Were Feingold's Legacy

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Campaign Finance Limits Were Feingold's Legacy

Campaign Finance Limits Were Feingold's Legacy

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Now, one electoral casualty on Tuesday, was Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, the Democratic half of the team that crafted the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Law. That 2002 law was the high-point in the regulation of money in national politics.

As NPR's Peter Overby reports, this has been a rough year, for both the senator and his best-known piece of legislative.

PETER OVERBY: Russ Feingold came to Washington as an outsider. In 1992, his first Senate race, he produced some rather off-kilter campaign ads - like this one.

(Soundbite of campaign ad)

Senator RUSS FEINGOLD (Democrat, Wisconsin): They said I couldn't beat an incumbent state senator. But I did. Now they say I won't be your next United States senator. 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.

OVERBY: Once elected, and even re-elected, Feingold never became an inside player. Meredith McGehee is a good government lobbyist who worked with Feingold on campaign finance issues.

Ms. MEREDITH MCGEHEE (Lobbyist): He made that decision when he came in, that the way he wanted to serve as a senator was not to go along and get along, or even to climb the leadership ladder.

OVERBY: So Feingold's biggest legacy is the law he crafted with Republican Senator 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. Here's Feingold's speech before the final floor vote.

Senator FEINGOLD: 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.

OVERBY: Now, messing with the fundraising laws is one sure way to aggravate the leadership on Capitol Hill, and Feingold found others. After 9/11, he was the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act, giving federal authorities new investigative powers. And he's consistently opposed the war in Afghanistan.

But meanwhile, conservatives filed lawsuits that whittled away at McCain-Feingold. And last January, the Supreme Court crippled it. The 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. Feingold was the first witness.

Senator FEINGOLD: This terrible decision deserves as robust a response as possible. Nothing less than the future of our democracy is at stake.

OVERBY: But the response took months to emerge and as 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.

Meredith McGehee, the good government lobbyist, says lawmakers who will work to toughen up the campaign finance laws are few and far between.

Ms. MCGEHEE: 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.

It's a good thing there aren't more Russ Feingolds, according to Cleta Mitchell. She's a campaign finance lawyer who worked on the team opposing the McCain-Feingold bill.

Ms. CLETA MITCHELL (Campaign finance lawyer): The more we can try to close that down, the better; and unwind the damage that people like Russ Feingold have done. I'm not sorry to see him go.

OVERBY: As to where he will go, Feingold gave a buildup Tuesday night.

(Soundbite of applause)

Senator FEINGOLD: It is on to our next adventure! Forward!

(Soundbite of cheers)

OVERBY: But that's all he said about it.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: OK, briefly now, some updates on races that were too close for us to call yesterday morning. In Florida's governor race, Republican Rick Scott defeated his Democratic opponent. And in Colorado, Democrat Michael Bennett narrowly held on to his Senate seat.

We still do not have winners in Senate races in Washington state and Alaska. In Washington, mail-in ballots are slowly being processed and Patty Murray, the incumbent Democrat, has a slim lead. In Alaska, right now, the leading candidate is write-in, which is good news for incumbent Republican Lisa Murkowski who became a write-in candidate after losing her party's primary. However, the analysis of each individual ballot and the spelling of it will not begin until next week. That's M-U-R-K-O-W-S-K-I.


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