Russell Feingold

Russell Feingold

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  • Served as U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, 1993-2011
  • Co-author, with Republican Senator John McCain, of the controversial 2002 Campaign Finance Reform Act
  • Was the only U.S. senator to vote against the Patriot Act in 2001
  • Opposed the October 2002 joint resolution to authorize the use of the U.S. Armed Forces against Iraq
  • Became president of the American Constitution Society in 2020


Born in Janesville, Wisconsin on March 2, 1953, Russell Feingold earned a BA in political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1975, a bachelor’s degree from Magdalen College at Oxford in 1977, and a JD from Harvard Law School in 1979. He first became politically active by working as a volunteer for the presidential campaigns of Democrats John Lindsay (1972), Mo Udall (1976), and Ted Kennedy (1980).

Following a six-year (1979-85) stint as an attorney at two private law firms in Wisconsin, Feingold, a Democrat, served in the Wisconsin State Senate from 1983-93, and in the U.S. Senate from 1993-2011.

The McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002

Feingold is best known for co-sponsoring, with Republican Senator John McCain, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 — commonly known as the McCain-Feingold Act — which imposed strict limits on political advocacy, and which, according to its critics, violated the First Amendment and increased the influence of money in political races. The bill was signed into law in November 2002 by President George W. Bush.

The movement to pass McCain-Feingold was heavily financed by the multi-billionaire leftwing funder, George Soros, who had quietly spent millions of dollars to lay the groundwork for the bill during the preceding eight years. Soros began working on this issue shortly after the 1994 midterm elections, when for the first time in nearly half a century, Republicans won strong majorities in both houses of Congress. Political analysts at the time attributed the huge Republican gains, in large part, to the effectiveness of television advertising—most notably the “Harry and Louise” series (which cost $14 million to produce and air) where a fictional suburban couple exposed the many hidden, and distasteful, details of Hillary Clinton’s proposals for a more socialized national healthcare system. Indeed the 1994 election was, to a considerable degree, a referendum on this attempted government takeover of one-sixth of the U.S. economy—and on the Democratic President, Bill Clinton, who had tacitly endorsed it. George Soros was angry that such advertisements were capable of overriding the influence of the major print and broadcast news media, which, because they were overwhelmingly sympathetic to Democrat agendas, had given Hillary’s healthcare plan a great deal of free, positive publicity for months. Three weeks after the 1994 elections, Soros announced that he intended to “do something” about “the distortion of our electoral process by the excessive use of TV advertising.”[1]

That “something” would be campaign-finance reform.

Starting in 1994, Soros’s Open Society Foundations and a few other leftist foundations began bankrolling front groups and so-called “experts” whose aim was to persuade Congress to swallow the fiction that millions of Americans were clamoring for “campaign-finance reform.” This deceptive strategy was the brainchild of Sean Treglia, a former program officer with the Pew Charitable Trusts. Between 1994 and 2004, some $140 million of foundation cash was used to promote campaign-finance reform. Nearly 90 percent of that sum derived from just eight foundations, one of which was the Open Society Foundations, which contributed $12.6 million to the cause. Among the major recipients of these OSF funds were such pro-campaign-finance-reform organizations as the Alliance For Better Campaigns ($650,000); the Brennan Center for Justice (more than $3.3 million); the Center For Public Integrity ($1.7 million); the Center For Responsive Politics ($75,000); Common Cause ($625,000); Democracy 21 ($300,000); Public Campaign ($1.3 million); and Public Citizen ($275,000).

The “research” which these groups produced in order to make a case on behalf of campaign-finance reform was largely bogus and contrived. For instance, Brennan Center political scientist Jonathan Krasno had clearly admitted in his February 19, 1999 grant proposal to the Pew Charitable Trusts that the purpose of the proposed study was political, not scholarly, and that the project would be axed if it failed to yield the desired results: “The purpose of our acquiring the data set is not simply to advance knowledge for its own sake, but to fuel a continuous multi-faceted campaign to propel campaign reform forward. Whether we proceed to phase two will depend on the judgment of whether the data provide a sufficiently powerful boost to the reform movement.”

The stated purpose of McCain-Feingold was to purge politics of corruption by: (a) putting restrictions on paid advertising during the weeks just prior to political elections, and (b) tightly regulating the amount of money that political parties and candidates could accept from donors. Vis à vis the former of those two provisions, the new legislation barred private organizations—including unions, corporations, and citizen activist groups—from advertising for or against any candidate for federal office on television or radio during the 60 days preceding an election, and during the 30 days preceding a primary. During those blackout periods, only official political parties would be permitted to engage in “express advocacy” advertising—i.e., political ads that expressly urged voters to “vote for” or “vote against” a specified candidate. Equally important, major media networks were exempted from McCain-Feingold’s constraints; thus they were free to speak about candidates in any manner they wished during their regular programming and news broadcasts. This would inevitably be a positive development for Democrats, who enjoyed the near-universal support of America’s leading media outlets.[2]

In addition to its limits on pre-election political advertising, McCain-Feingold also placed onerous new restrictions on the types of donations which candidates, parties, and political action committees (PACs) could now accept. Previously, they had been permitted to take two types of contributions. One of these was “hard money,” which referred to funds earmarked for the purpose of express advocacy. Federal Election Commission (FEC) regulations stipulated that in a single calendar year, no hard-money donor could give more than $1,000 to any particular candidate, no more than $5,000 to a PAC, and no more than $20,000 to any political party.

The other category of pre-McCain-Feingold donations was “soft-money,” which donors were permitted to give directly to a political party in amounts unlimited by law. But to qualify for designation as “soft money,” a donation could not be used to fund “express advocacy” ads on behalf of any particular candidate. Rather, it had to be used to pay for such things as “voter-education” ads or “issue-oriented” ads—political messages that carefully refrained from making explicit calls to “vote for” or “vote against” any specific candidate. So long as an ad steered clear of uttering such forbidden instructions, there was no limit as to how much soft money could be spent on its production and dissemination.

McCain-Feingold raised the per-donor maximum for certain hard-money donations: A donor could now give up to $2,000 to a candidate, $5,000 to a PAC, and $25,000 to a political party. But the new law banned soft-money contributions to political parties altogether.[3]

Historically, Republicans had enjoyed a 2-1 advantage over Democrats in raising hard money from individual donors. Democrats had relied much more heavily on soft money from large institutions such as labor unions.[4]  Thus, it seems counter-intuitive that Soros, who clearly favored Democrats over Republicans, would seek to push legislation whose net effect—the removal of soft money—would be unfavorable to Democratic Party fundraising efforts.

But Soros’s motive becomes clear when we look at the types of organizations whose fundraising activities were left unaffected by McCain-Feingold. These were “527 committees”—nonprofits named after Section 527 of the IRS code—which, unlike ordinary PACS, were not required to register with the FEC. Run mostly by special-interest groups, these 527s were technically supposed to be independent of, and unaffiliated with, any party or candidate. As such, they were permitted to raise soft money—in amounts unbound by any legal limits—for all manner of political activities other than express advocacy. That is, so long as a 527’s soft money was not being used to pay for ads explicitly urging people to cast their ballots either for or against any particular candidate, the letter of the McCain-Feingold law technically was being followed. Practically speaking, of course, such things as “issue-oriented ads” and “voter-education” ads can easily be tailored to favor one party or candidate over another, while carefully steering clear of “express advocacy.”

Once McCain-Feingold was in place, Soros and his political allies collaborated to set up a network of “527 committees” ready to receive the soft money that individual donors and big labor unions normally would have given directly to the Democratic Party. These 527s could then use that money to fund issue-oriented ads, voter-education initiatives, get-out-the-vote drives, and other “party-building” activities—not only to help elect Democratic candidates in 2004, but more broadly to guide the Democratic Party ever-further leftward and to reject the “closed” society that Bush and the Republicans presumably favored. By helping to push McCain-Feingold through Congress, Soros had effectively cut off the Democrats’ soft-money supply and diverted it to the coffers of an alternative network of beneficiaries—which he personally controlled.[5]  As journalist Byron York observed, “[T]he new campaign finance rules had actually increased the influence of big money in politics. By giving directly to ‘independent’ groups rather than to the party itself, big-ticket donors could influence campaign strategy and tactics more directly than they ever had previously…. And the power was concentrated in very few hands”—most notably Soros’s.[6]

U.S. Senator Feingold

Feingold often used his U.S. Senate office to declare against American military interventions around the world, regardless of which party controlled the White House. For example:

  • In 1997 he lobbied to cut off funds for U.S. military efforts in Bosnia and advocated an early withdrawal of the American forces stationed there. Complaining that the Clinton administration had failed to “define a concrete exit strategy for our … troops,” Feingold voiced concern that those troops “will be there for a very, very long time.”
  • In 1999 Feingold was one of only three Democrats to oppose U.S. air strikes against Yugoslavian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. “As with the Bosnia mission, there is no clear set of goals, beyond maintaining a currently nonexistent peace,” said Feingold. “There is no timetable with withdrawal, no cost assessment, no exit strategy.”
  • In 2002-03, Feingold repeatedly assailed President George W. Bush’s decision to forcibly depose Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. In October 2002, for instance, the senator impugned Bush’s “practice of shifting justifications” for war against Iraq: “I’m talking about the spectacle of the President and senior Administration officials citing a purported connection to al-Qaeda one day, weapons of mass destruction the next day, Saddam Hussein’s treatment of his own people on another day, and then on some days the issue of Kuwaiti prisoners of war.”
  • Nor were Democratic supporters of the Iraq War immune from Feingold’s scorn. “Frankly, too many Democrats voted for the war,” he declared in December 2005.
  • Asked about the Iraq War in a November 27, 2005 interview, Feingold told ABC News: “This is not a war that we should really think [of] in terms of winning or losing. What we tried to do there was to go in and make sure that the Iraqi people could get rid of Saddam Hussein. Now it is a political matter, and the military mission, in my view, needs to come to an end.”
  • In 2005 Feingold scheduled a widely publicized meeting with anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan.

In December 2005, when The New York Times reported that the National Security Agency, under President Bush’s authority, had used wiretaps on international phone calls to monitor suspected al-Qaeda operatives, Feingold was one of only two senators (along with Carl Levin) who immediately alleged that Bush had broken the law.

In 2006, Feingold spoke at the annual “Take Back America” conference organized by the Institute for Policy Studies and the Campaign for America’s Future.

In January 2007, Feingold publicly condemned President Bush’s decision to send an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq in an attempt to turn the tide of America’s then-failing war effort – a measure that ultimately helped crush the Iraqi resistance. Moreover, Feingold announced that he would soon introduce legislation to cut off any further congressional funding of the war. “The mainstream view of the American people is to get out of Iraq,” he explained.

When contemplating a run for the U.S. presidency in 2008, Feingold told an Arab American Institute delegation: “I call on the president to immediately stop using the phrase ‘Islamic fascism,’ a label that doesn’t make any sense, and certainly doesn’t help our effort to fight terrorism.”

Though Senator Feingold favored the implementation of a single-payer, government-run healthcare system, he recognized that openly proposing such a model would be politically toxic, thus he mostly refrained from doing so. But in a 2016 appearance at Marquette Law School, Feingold recalled that when the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was being formulated in 2009-10, he and fellow senator Bernie Sanders had wanted “an even stronger bill.” “We wanted a single-payer,” Feingold revealed. “We wanted an option to opt in, a public option” — i.e., a government-run insurance option that could “compete” with private insurers and put them out of business, thereby paving the way to a universal healthcare system run entirely by the federal government.

In November 2010, Feingold lost his bid for a third re-election to the U.S. Senate, to Republican challenger Ron Johnson.

Senator Feingold’s Advocacy Group Ratings

Throughout Feingold’s Senate career, the left-leaning Americans For Democratic Action consistently gave him ratings of 90% to 100%, indicating that his votes and issue positions were overwhelmingly leftwing. By contrast, the American Conservative Union gave Feingold a lifetime rating of 13%.

Senator Feingold’s Voting Record

For an overview of Feingold’s voting record on an array of key issues, click here.

Senator Feingold’s Policy Positions

As matters of principle, Feingold believes that:

  • all women should have an unrestricted right to abortion-on-demand at any stage of pregnancy – subsidized by taxpayers, in cases of economic hardship;
  • public and private employers alike should be legally required to implement affirmative-action hiring and promotion policies that give preference to African Americans and women, as compensation for historical injustices;
  • the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is an excellent statute that can serve as a strategic stepping stone toward the eventual implementation of a government-run, single-payer healthcare system;
  • Social Security should remain entirely and permanently under federal control, with no movement whatsoever toward any degree of privatization;
  • the principle of church-state separation is inviolable and should preclude permitting prayer in the public schools, or the posting of the Ten Commandments in public places;
  • voucher programs designed to enable low-income parents to send their children to private schools rather than to failing public schools, constitute bad policy because they rob the public schools of vital resources;
  • more guns in the hands of private citizens inevitably result in higher levels of crime, thus the availability of firearms should be restricted by whatever means are effective;
  • wealthy people and high income earners should pay dramatically higher tax rates than those with less wealth or lower incomes;
  • restrictions on immigration are basically racist because they tend to prevent Hispanics and other non-whites from entering the United States;
  • social services should be available to all U.S. residents regardless of their immigration status;
  • illegal aliens should be offered amnesty if they have been productive members of society;
  • voter ID laws are racist and designed to suppress minority voting;
  • federal spending on public infrastructure projects and job programs is crucial to the success of any economic recovery program; and
  • the nationalization of banks and corporations is preferable to federal bailouts of those entities.

Founder of Progressives United

In 2011 Feingold founded Progressives United, a political action committee whose mission was to “stand up against the exploding corporate influence in our elections by … supporting candidates who stand up for our progressive ideals.”

Co-Chair of Obama For America

In 2012 Feingold was a co-chair of Obama For America, which subsequently became known as Organizing For America.

U.S. Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa

On June 18, 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry appointed Feingold as United States Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa. He resigned from that post on May 14, 2015, and then promptly announced that he would try to win back his old Senate seat from Ron Johnson in 2016. Feingold lost that rematch with Johnson in November 2106.

President of the American Constitution Society

On February 25, 2020, the American Constitution Society (ACS) announced that Feingold would serve as the organization’s new president, officially starting in that post on March 9.

Additional Information

On various occasions over the years, Feingold has contributed his writings to the leftist magazine, The Progressive.

Among the noteworthy supporters of Feingold’s political campaigns were such groups as 21st Century Democrats, the Council for a Livable World, and J Street.

Feigold has taught at a number of law schools, including Stanford Law School, Yale Law School, Marquette University Law School, and Harvard Law School.


  1. David Horowitz and Richard Poe, The Shadow Party (2006), pp. 131-136.
  2. Major Provisions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002
  3. David Horowitz and Richard Poe, The Shadow Party (2006), pp. 175-176.
  4. David Horowitz and Richard Poe, The Shadow Party (2006), p. 176.
  5. Republicans, meanwhile, did not build any comparable network of independent fundraising nonprofits to circumvent McCain-Feingold – probably because they historically had been successful at raising hard money.
  6. Byron York, The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy (2005), p. 8.

Additional Resources:

Russell Feingold’s Voting Record

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