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Kohl still too strong to topple


July 27, 2006

And then there were none. In light of new revelations that Robert Gerald Lorge (R-Bear Creek) has been accused of being an alleged child molester, it appears Republicans have gone from token opposition to Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) to practically no opposition.

The question, of course, is why? After all, itís not like there isnít some room for policy differences between the Democratic senator and the leading politicians from the other party. But after six more years of casting votes, Kohl has gone from facing B-level candidates to third-party fringe candidates.

According to one published report, some Republicans are blaming Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), head of the National Republican Senate Campaign Committee. She tried to recruit former Gov. Tommy Thompson to run to the exclusion of all else, and the state party followed suit. Others would blame the state party for not recruiting someone in the last six years. Still others put the blame on Thompson, or former Senate candidate Tim Michels, or even State Sen. Glenn Grothman who flirted with running right at the end.

But really, to understand the reason Kohl is running without opposition we need to look at the unstated "Rosebud" of Kohlís political career: campaign finance reform.

Campaign finance reform is usually associated with the other guy: the more acerbic and less popular Sen. Russ Feingold. However, Feingold really is just following in Kohlís footsteps. Kohl is the all-time master of making donated money look evil.

When Kohl first ran in 1988 he was a late entry into the race. He did not enter the race until June 1, while his opponents had all been campaigning since October.

Late as he was, his timing was perfect. The Democratic primary was over the succession to William Proxmire, who retired with the reputation for not spending any money to win re-election repeatedly. The mood among Democrats was for a non-politician immune to the special interests.

Democratic strategist Bill Christofferson tells me nobody can claim sole authorship of the senatorís catch phrase. However "Nobodyís Senator But Yours" still resonates with the voters as a defiant statement of independence 18 years later. It accomplished two tasks simultaneously: It inoculated Kohl from the charge of trying to buy the election and it immediately made any money raised by his opponents suspect.

By late June the first polls were in and Kohl was skyrocketing. Congressman Jim Moody was chased from the primary before the nomination petitions were signed and Kohl dispatched former Gov. Tony Earl, Ed Garvey and Secretary of State Doug LaFollette to win the Democratic primary.

Kohl successfully tapped public sentiment and established himself as a man who cannot be bought. But campaign finance reform also prevented his opponents from raising the money necessary to beat Kohl and his own personal wealth.

A former governor like Tony Earl should have been able to attract a wide donation base, and he did, but the donors were limited in what they can give. At the time of the last campaign finance report before the primary, Kohl had spent $2.1 million. Former Governor Earl spent $431,719.

Want a bit of irony? Today Earl serves on the board of Common Cause, an organization dedicated to the cause of campaign finance reform.

After beating his Democratic rivals, Kohl crushed state Sen. Susan Engeleiter who literally chastised him with a fruitcake in probably the goofiest political campaign moment in Wisconsin history.

Engeleiter may have run a better campaign had she not had to pause after her primary victory to raise more money. However, she too, was limited in what she could raise, and never was on equal footing with the wealthy, self-funding Kohl.

In the two elections since then Republicans could not find a candidate capable of fighting Kohl on an equal footing financially. As a result, state Sen. Bob Welch and Rawhide Boys Ranch founder John Gillespie were the sacrificial lambs instead of Gov. Tommy Thompson, Lt. Gov. McCallum, Assembly Speakers Scott Jensen and David Prosser, Congressman Mark Neumann and others.

This time around Republicans were unable to find anybody, and the one-person running with the Republican label, Lorge, has now become a liability to the party. Meanwhile, sitting out this race (in addition to the ones already mentioned) are Congressmen Mark Green and Paul Ryan, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker and former Waukesha County Executive Dan Finley, any of whom couldíve provided a serious challenge except for one thing: money.

But which of the possible candidates would have been willing to run against Kohl if they werenít faced with the heavy restrictions of campaign finance reform? What would have a Ryan or a Walker candidacy looked like if they were able to campaign on an equal footing with Kohl?

Thanks to campaign finance reform, weíll never know.

(James Wigderson is a blogger publishing at and a Waukesha resident. His column runs Thursdays in The Freeman.)


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