A rich grocer, a low-budget underdog and wild election swings. Lessons from Wisconsin's past frame '22 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate

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This story was republished on Jan. 13, 2022 to make it free for all readers

It has been 30 years since Wisconsin had a truly contested Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, but that’s what looms in 2022, with four candidates — and maybe more — competing for the seat now held by Republican Ron Johnson.

The last two times this happened, it left a lasting impact on Wisconsin politics.

Herb Kohl’s victory in the 1988 Democratic primary launched his 24-year Senate career.

Russ Feingold’s victory in the 1992 primary launched his 18-year Senate career.

Kohl waged Wisconsin’s first start-to-finish, saturation-level TV ad campaign. His win became an archetype here and elsewhere for self-financed campaigns by wealthy non-politicians.

Feingold’s victory four years later is one of the most dramatic examples in American politics of negative TV ads radically transforming a statewide election (his front-running rivals took each other out). Feingold’s long-shot campaign has been invoked by underfunded underdogs ever since.

I covered both primaries for the Milwaukee Journal and am going to revisit them here, for three reasons.

One is to explore whether they offer any lessons about statewide Democratic primaries in Wisconsin, including the one unfolding now.

Two, these races are a vivid reminder of how different the political and media landscape was a few decades ago.

And three, these are pretty wild stories in their own right.

At stake in the 1988 Democratic Senate primary was the seat being vacated by a Wisconsin legend, Bill Proxmire (a seat held prior to that by Joe McCarthy).

One contender was Milwaukee Congressman Jim Moody. Another was Tony Earl, the one-term governor defeated two years earlier by Tommy Thompson.

Also running were Ed Garvey, the party’s 1986 Senate nominee and former director of the NFL players union, and Doug La Follette, Wisconsin’s longtime secretary of state.

That was the field. It included some serious names with real political track records.

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Then Kohl got in the race and everything changed. As the owner of the Milwaukee Bucks and the former CEO of the Kohl’s supermarket chain his family founded, he was already a big name. But his name was about to get a lot bigger. The deluge of Kohl ads that began on June 1 when he entered the race and didn’t end until his November election had no precedent in Wisconsin and few precedents elsewhere.

Kohl’s face became instantly recognizable. His ads transformed the campaign. His slogan – “Nobody’s Senator but Yours” – cleverly sought to turn a negative (a multimillionaire spending his way toward a Senate seat) into a positive (not beholden to special interests). Because of Kohl, the issue that came to dominate the contest was the role of money and television in the election.

Earl’s media consultant was David Axelrod, the future adviser to Barack Obama, a friend of Kohl who signed up with Earl before Kohl got in. Garvey’s campaign manager was Bill Dixon, who had just run Gary Hart’s presidential campaign, which imploded in 1987 in the Donna Rice scandal. (Dixon was portrayed by the actor J.K. Simmons in the 2018 Hugh Jackman movie about the Hart campaign, “The Front Runner.”)

Both Earl and Garvey chided Kohl for trying to “buy” the election and skipping some Democratic debates. Kohl and his campaign team (Michele Carrier and Bill Christofferson) chided Earl and Garvey for airing “negative ads” while touting Kohl’s own pledge against negative advertising. This exasperated Garvey and Earl, who thought it was brazen of Kohl to vastly outspend his rivals while expecting them not to criticize his vast spending.

Earl ran an ad depicting Kohl, the Bucks owner, as a bumbling basketball player with dollar signs on his back, to the music of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” the theme song of the theatrical barnstorming basketball team, the Harlem Globetrotters. Garvey ran a satirical ad depicting a monster whose head was a TV set playing Kohl ads. “Run for your lives!” cried a voice. “It’s the brain polluters.”

In the category of things that wouldn’t happen today, a conservative Republican Senate candidate, Steve King, participated in many of the Democratic forums. At one point before the primary, Earl arranged his own cross-party debate tour with King, in protest over Kohl’s failure to attend all the Democratic candidate events.

Compared to now, the media landscape at the time offered both pluses and minuses to an inexperienced but wealthy candidate. Kohl was a former state party chair. But he also was a first-time candidate who made gaffes. Some of those would have been viral moments in today’s world and potentially crippling. But they weren’t in 1988. Kohl’s television blitz was all the more powerful because broadcast TV had such a pervasive hold on viewers.

But there were challenges, too. Local journalism across the state had far more resources back then, which generated a lot of close coverage and a lot of brush fires and a lot of scrutiny of Kohl’s knowledge of the issues and his wealth and spending. A fair amount of it was negative.

In the end, Kohl had political assets in addition to his money. People liked him. They liked his persona. In politics, being known to people by your first name (“Herb”) is usually a good sign. And his history of keeping the Bucks in Milwaukee and building up the Kohl’s chain had generated good will.

Kohl beat Earl by 9 points in the September primary, won a close general election race against moderate Republican Susan Engeleiter and went on to win three comfortable reelection campaigns before he retired in January 2013.

A wild election swing

Four years later, another Democratic Senate primary was upended by television ads.

Three Democrats were vying for the chance to challenge incumbent Republican Bob Kasten. One was Moody. Another was wealthy Milwaukee businessman Joe Checota, a hardball entrepreneur who was trying to replicate the Kohl self-funding model, using the same campaign advisers. And the third was Feingold, a state senator with little money or name recognition and seemingly poor odds of winning.

Checota’s ad blitz helped him overtake Moody in the polls. His slogan was “A no-nonsense guy to take on all the nonsense in Washington.”

But what happened next was the single wildest election swing I’ve ever seen in politics.

A few weeks before the primary, Moody launched an advertising offensive against Checota. Checota fired back. The two went after each other’s tax filings. Moody assailed Checota’s business record, which was controversial. Checota ripped Moody over congressional travel. In one poll, Moody’s negatives went from 9% to 46%.

The exchange was so harsh and abrupt that party leaders implored them to stop. Less than two weeks after it started, the two ended their dance of mutually assured destruction. Checota apologized for his part in it.

All this time, Feingold was struggling for attention, crisscrossing the state and grinding out position papers in the shadow of his rivals — and bigger news stories. One Feingold news conference in Milwaukee fell on the morning after police discovered body parts in serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment; another presser fell on the first day of Dahmer’s trial. Feingold wasn’t breaking through.

But the Checota-Moody spat was a gift from the campaign gods, leaving Feingold as the untainted alternative. In one of the campaign’s weirder moments, Checota ran an ad three days before the election attacking Moody for attacking Feingold.

Over the span of a few short weeks, Feingold went from polling in the teens to winning the three-way Democratic primary with 70% of the vote. Let that sink in. Feingold won a ridiculously lopsided victory while having the lowest name recognition in the field and being outspent by a combined 14-to-1. Viewing the Democratic race from the outside, Kasten, the GOP incumbent, called it “almost bizarre.” A Feingold aide called it “one of the most bizarre elections maybe in Wisconsin history.”

The lesson some took from this was that the attack ads backfired: Democratic primary voters were so appalled that they used their votes to register their heartfelt rejection of negative campaigning. The lesson others took was that these ads not only “worked,” but were spectacularly effective at destroying their intended targets. It just happened to be a suicidal strategy in a three-way primary, where a shootout between two contestants leaves the door wide open for a third.

Primaries can be unpredictable

Three decades later, a Democratic primary campaign is underway for Johnson’s Senate seat. The primary will be held in August 2022. Four Democrats have so far entered the race and others may follow. They are State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, Outagamie County Executive and former state lawmaker Tom Nelson; and Wausau radiologist Gillian Battino.

Nelson has already invoked Feingold as a model. Lasry, like Kohl, has the Milwaukee Bucks connection and family wealth.

Do the 1988 and 1992 primaries have any lessons to offer for this race?

One is that the Kohl path and the Feingold path are both very contingent on circumstance. For Kohl, it wasn’t just his money, but his long history, his persona and campaign factors. Lots of self-funded candidates fail. For Feingold, his methodical, low-budget, shoe-leather-and-substance approach to the race put him in position to benefit from his opponents’ demise. Still, if they hadn’t destroyed each other, Feingold wouldn’t have won.

Another lesson is that when the candidates don’t differ a whole lot on policy, primaries tend to turn on style, messaging or the conduct of the campaign itself. That can make them unpredictable.

The current Democratic Senate primary feels especially hard to handicap because unlike 1988 or 1992, none of the candidates in the race so far start out with much statewide name recognition or a proven regional constituency.

This can elevate the role of spending and advertising. The 1988 and 1992 primaries illustrated how campaign ads and messaging can build up or tear down a candidate, but also how candidates don’t always live or die on spending and advertising alone.

These decades-old races also point to an important shift in the geography of Democratic primaries in Wisconsin. Kohl competed everywhere but benefited immensely from his popularity in Milwaukee. His winning vote margin in Milwaukee and Waukesha counties provided almost his entire winning margin statewide.

Milwaukee generated 31% of the Democratic primary vote in 1988 — three times as much as Dane County, which heavily favored Earl.

In 1992, Milwaukee generated 26% of the Democratic primary vote, more than twice as much as Dane.

The math is very different today, thanks to growth of Dane. These two big blue counties will probably produce around the same number of votes in the 2022 Democratic Senate primary.

Both Kohl and Feingold also drew a lot of votes from the Republican suburbs. If GOP incumbent Johnson runs for reelection in 2020 — and there is no contested GOP primary — then Republican Waukesha County could easily play a significant role in the outcome of the Democratic primary.

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson’s decision on whether to run for another term will have a profound effect on the Democrat side of the 2022 contest.

The 1988 and 1992 races highlight the fluid nature of primaries with three or more contestants (when there’s no dominant candidate). Large fields lower the threshold share of the vote needed to win. Kohl won his primary with 47%. He probably would have won a two-way race against Earl, but he was helped by being the only “non-politician” and the dominant Milwaukee candidate in a field of four. Feingold’s win showed how a race with three or more candidates complicates the strategic calculus among contenders.

It’s way too early to try to handicap the 2022 Democratic Senate primary. The field will probably grow and change, altering the political calculus. Whether Johnson decides to run for reelection will affect the Democratic race, because some Democratic voters will judge the contestants on their perceived ability to match up against Johnson.

Lastly, if this campaign is remotely like the primaries of 1988 or 1992, we can’t really imagine the turns it will take.

Craig Gilbert is the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Washington Bureau Chief and longtime political writer. Gilbert has covered every presidential campaign since 1988 and chronicled Wisconsin’s role as a swing state at the center of the nation’s political divide. He has written widely about polarization and voting trends, and won distinction for his data-driven analysis. Gilbert has served as a writer-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a Lubar Fellow at Marquette Law School and a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan, where he studied public opinion, survey research, voting behavior and statistics.

Email him at craig.gilbert@jrn.com; follow him on Twitter: @Wisvoter.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: The ’22 Wisconsin Democratic primary for U.S. Senate could get wild