MADISON, Wis. — A pledge scrawled on Russ Feingold's garage door and featured in a quirky 1992 Senate ad assured Wisconsin residents that he would rely on them — not wealthy out-of-state donors — to bankroll his campaign.
Once the Wisconsin Democrat got to Washington he joined forces with Arizona Republican John McCain on efforts to deflate the influence of special interest money, passing a seminal campaign finance reform law that bears both senators' names.
But now, with McCain facing a tougher-than-expected re-election and Feingold seeking to win back the seat he lost six years ago, the authors of McCain-Feingold are benefiting from the same sources of funding they once scorned.
The goal of their 2002 law was to shore up confidence in the political system and reduce the role of big money in elections. But it also allowed people and corporations to give their money elsewhere, to independent and third-party groups. Critics have argued that increased the power of those groups, weakening the role of political parties.
Feingold no longer abides by his 1992 garage door promise and doesn't spurn outside money to help his campaign. He defends his position as necessary in the wake of the landmark Citizens United Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that gave a green light for corporations,
"(Citizens United has) completely changed the landscape," Feingold said during a campaign stop in late September. "And we're hoping we can overturn that decision and get back to some common sense. I don't want the outside groups. I never have. ... They have a right to do it, unfortunately."
Feingold's opponent, Sen. Ron Johnson, has branded him a hypocrite over the issue.
McCain declined repeated requests for comment. But longtime McCain backer Chuck Coughlin defended the senator's use of super PAC spending while saying he believes the current system is undermining democracy.
Feingold almost lost his first re-election in 1998 because he refused to allow his campaign or any other allies to accept "soft money" to counter the millions that came in for his opponent. In 2010 Feingold found himself being challenged by Ron Johnson, a businessman with no prior political experience who was emboldened by the tea party movement. Feingold stood by his refusal to accept outside money, a spigot that Johnson was more than happy to turn on.
Independent groups spent about $3 million on the race, the vast majority of it going to help propel Johnson to victory.
This time Feingold proposed a "Badger Pledge" designed to blunt the impact of outside money. It was nearly identical to one Democrat Elizabeth Warren and Republican Scott Brown agreed to in Massachusetts' U.S. Senate race in 2012.
Johnson has refused to sign it.
Outside groups are spending heavily in the race, with $6.5 million coming in by early October. Of that, $1.2 million was benefiting Feingold and almost $6.3 million has gone to help Johnson.
Outside money also is pouring in for McCain, thanks mostly to $3.7 million from his own super PAC and $1.5 million from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The $5.4 million McCain has gotten from outside groups far outpaces the roughly $900,000 that have gone to help his opponents, a former Republican state senator McCain beat in the primary and his general election opponent Democratic U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick.
Kelli Ward, who lost to McCain in the primary, said the super PAC spending is "an example of establishment elitist political hypocrisy that we see on both sides of the aisle at every level of government."
"The people who are in control like to make rules for the people they want to control but not for themselves," Ward said.
While Feingold's shifts on campaign finance is disappointing, it's equally disheartening that Johnson has not disavowed outside money, said Jack Heck, director of the government watchdog group Common Cause of Wisconsin.
"I'm more disappointed that the system has changed so dramatically," Heck said.
Christie reported from Phoenix.
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