Russ Feingold has spent 18 years in the U.S. Senate, 28 years in elective office. The Democrat has never lost an election. Yet, in his bid for a fourth Senate term, against first-time candidate Republican Ron Johnson, Feingold is positioning himself as the underdog.
To be sure, the latest Federal Election Commission reports -- for spending from Jan. 1 through Aug. 25 -- show Johnson outspent Feingold $4.55 million to $4.28 million. Feingold says Johnson, a multi-millionaire Oshkosh businessman, may wind up running the most expensive campaign in state history.
We won’t be able to tally that up until after the election.
But what about this claim by Feingold: "I've been outspent by my opponents every time I've run for U.S. Senate."
Feingold has made the statement, or a variation of it, many times: In TV interviews on the night of the Sept. 14 primary, in a magazine interview, in an e-mail solicitation to supporters, in a blog post on his campaign website and on "The Ed Show" on MSNBC.
So, is it true?
The claim seems pretty straightforward, one candidate versus another candidate in each of Feingold’s three previous Senate campaigns. Indeed, when we asked the campaign to support Feingold’s statement, senior adviser John Kraus pointed to spending by Feingold and his various opponents -- not spending by outside groups, which would complicate matters.
But here is the twist: Kraus said Feingold compares his campaign spending to the spending by all of the candidates in an election -- the Republican he faced head-to-head in each November contest, as well as major party candidates eliminated in the primary.
Call it me-against-them math.
For instance, in Feingold’s last election, he outspent GOP nominee Tim Michels by nearly $3.7 million in the two-year period before the general election, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.
But Feingold tosses in what was spent by unsuccessful GOP primary candidates Russ Darrow and Robert Welch. By that measure, all of the GOP candidates spent $11.6 million -- more than the $9.24 million spent by Feingold alone.
It’s a convenient argument, especially when you are using the "outspent every time" line in fund-raising appeals.
But it also confounds logic.
Michels, Darrow and Welch all sought the Republican nomination in 2004 -- just as Feingold was part of a three-way battle when he won the seat in 1992.
In the 1992 race, FEC records show Feingold spent $1,979,488 -- the least among the other major candidates. In the Democratic primary, Feingold defeated Jim Moody who spent $2,828,211 and Joseph Checota, who spent $4,022,344.
Feingold then defeated Bob Kasten, the Republican incumbent, who spent $5,427,163.
Using Feingold’s me-vs-them math, everyone could say they were outspent. So is it possible that everyone spent the least and no one spent the most?
Of course not.
Mike McCabe, head of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks campaign spending and lobbies for public funding of campaigns, said the average voter would think of the opponent as the head-to-head matchup.
So let’s line the general election candidates that way, with their spending in the two-year period before the election.
Republican nominee Mark Neumann: $4,373,953
So Feingold was outspent twice, and in the third race spent nearly $3.7 million -- or about 67 percent -- more than his opponent. That’s not close by anyone’s math.
(A footnote: While Johnson can tap his own wallet during the fall campaign, Feingold isn’t cash-poor. The latest FEC reports show Feingold had $4.3 million on hand, more than four times the $940,642 listed for Johnson.)
So where does that leave us?
In positioning himself as an underdog, and seeking campaign money from donors, Feingold says he has always been outspent by his opponents. Though that is true in two races, he uses some twisted logic -- and math -- to get there on the third, tallying up spending by Republican primary candidates he never faced to obscure that he vastly outspent the one he did.
On Election Day, one Democrat faces one Republican. That’s the choice for voters. And that’s the approach we use. Tossing in the kitchen sink leads us to throw in a match. We rate Feingold’s statement Pants on Fire!