Wisconsin Senate hopeful makes his money talk

Like Republicans across the country, Republican Ron Johnson has a commanding financial advantage. David Usborne reports from Oshkosh
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The Independent US

"Yes," says Sue Schrottky a little curtly, "I recognise you from the commercials." Eating breakfast at Mike's Family Restaurant, she is exchanging pleasantries with Ron Johnson, the Republican candidate in Wisconsin for the US Senate. She smiles, sort of, but it is because she is a polite person, not because she likes him.

Someone has to pay for those spots. For Mr Johnson, owner of a large plastics company in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, that hasn't been a problem. He has his own considerable wealth to plunder and conservatives in the state have chipped in mightily. It hasn't hurt that another $2m (£1.2m) has poured in from groups outside the state. They like Mr Johnson; probably they dislike Barack Obama more.

Nowhere is the controversy over outside funding for candidates in these elections more vivid than in Wisconsin. Trying to stave off Mr Johnson is the incumbent Democrat senator, Russ Feingold, who famously co-authored the 2002 campaign finance reform bill with John McCain. But today he has a problem: last spring the Supreme Court overturned that bill. All limits on donations by big corporations were undone.

If Mr Feingold were more sensible - or, to put it another way, less attached to his principles – he might bow to the new reality and accept money from wherever it might come. But he has declined to do so. Even money from the Democrat's Senatorial Campaign Committee has been turned down.

Hence the charge levelled by Mr Feingold and his supporters against Mr Johnson that he is essentially buying his Senate seat and that, if he wins, it will be despite having precisely zero political experience and having never even visited Washington DC before launching his campaign. (Both are positives as far as Mr Johnson's people are concerned.)

It is for these reasons that the satirical Onion newspaper honours Mr Johnson, who has strong Tea Party leanings, in this week's issue with a spoof article in his name. The headline: "My opponent knows where Washington DC is on a map; I don't, and I never will".

"Truth be told I never even heard of the name 'Washington DC' until I decided to run for the Senate," the faux-Johnson boasts. "I will have no idea how to get there or where I'm supposed to go. Will there be buildings there? Is it temperate, rainy, hot or cold? Do people speak English in this place?"

Mr Johnson has also provoked gasps of dismay from the left by expressing his view that blaming global warming on mankind's doings is "crazy". Rather, he says that it's "far more likely that it's just sunspot activity or just something in the geological eons of time."

That the Johnson candidacy is, however, far from a joke, also says much about the deep voter frustration with joblessness and anger at Washington. Mr Feingold's core supporters in Wisconsin may still love him, but likely that won't be enough. Polls say Mr Johnson will win by about seven points when voters tick their ballot papers next Tuesday, picking all of the House of Representatives and one third of the Senate. The polling guru Nate Silver gives him an 87 per cent chance of winning.

"He is so naive," growls Ms Schrottky, 56, a retired teacher. "And it's just amazing to me that so many people in Wisconsin have picked up on a man who has no track record for anything." And she is livid about the flood of money supporting him from outside the state and possibly from foreign sources too. "That's what's most frightening," she says.

To London, Mr Johnson has been, many times in fact, because of ties with the British packaging giant that used to be called Bowater. He doesn't mind interrupting his rounds shaking hands over plates of pancakes and syrup to answer questions from Britain. Won't he be Senator Clueless if he gets to DC?

"This is the time for citizen legislators," he says, running his eye over the pastry counter. He concedes he has no political experience even at the local, let alone the national level. "People see it is the career politicians that have gotten us into this mess and I have no faith that the career folk can get us out of it."

The charge from Mr Feingold that he is buying his seat "is not correct", he says simply, insisting that Mr Feingold will end up outspending him on advertising. Nor does he have any qualms about the unfettered flow of cash into the democratic process, no matter the source. "Free speech is a basic tenet of this country," he explains. "My opponent wants tax-payer money to pay for the lawn signs and the attacks ads. I don't think that's right."

Mr Feingold, first elected in 1992, has taken some risks, it is true. He is one of only a very few Democratic candidates not running away from Mr Obama – he appeared with him a recent rally in the state capital, Madison – and enthusiastically acknowledges that he voted for healthcare reform.

Just as Mr Johnson's campaign platform is childlike in its simplicity – slash government spending, but don't ask me how exactly – so is the message of his ads. Mr Feingold is attached to Mr Obama at the hip and is responsible for the out-of-control federal deficit. He is, in short, one of those damn Democrats.

Mr Feingold tries to defend himself. He has in fact broken with his party more than just about any other Democrat in Washington. (He refused to support the recent Wall Street reform package saying it was too weak. He voted against the Iraq war in 2003 and against the Bush Patriot Act. He supported Bush's Supreme Court nominees) And, unlike a certain aspiring "citizen legislator", he is not stinking rich.

"Call me foolish," says the Democratic Congressman Ron Kind from nearby Eau Claire. "But I think it's important that we still have one poor person serving in the Senate. If Johnson buys this election, he'd be the 72nd multimillionaire in the Senate." Barring a last-minute surge for Mr Feingold, it looks like the voters from Wisconsin will be sending Mr Johnson there anyway, rich or not. But first he'll need a GPS to find it.

Comedians host 'rally to restore sanity'

By train, car and bicycle – and by buses charted by the left-leaning Huffington Post news site – Americans mostly young and liberal were pouring in their thousands towards Washington last night to attend this morning's 'Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear' sponsored by Comedy Central.

Coming just before Tuesday's elections, the event is partly a riposte to the 'Rally to Restore Honour' that crammed the National Mall in August with conservative headliners Glenn Beck, a Fox anchor, and Sarah Palin.

Co-hosting this time will be Jon Stewart, right, and Stephen Colbert, hosts respectively of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report on the comedy cable channel. At least 60,000 are expected to attend, as well as 400 accredited journalists – with more than 600 news organisations turned down due to lack of space.

Stewart, who has always dismissed the idea that his programme is politically influential, insists that it is not a rally to support Democrats, but rather to demand an end to mutually destructive and negative partisan politics in Washington. But Amber Day, a professor of cultural studies at Bryant University, who will be attending the rally, disputes that. She told The New York Times: "He wants to preserve his persona of just being the guy at the back of the class throwing spitballs."

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