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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

A Verdict of History

Wisconsin’s Curious Senate History

At least three times in the last sixty-plus years Wisconsin voters have sent packing a respected national politician with a record of genuine accomplishment and replaced him with, well, to be generous, someone else.

La Follette – McCarthy

In 1946 Joe McCarthy, whose name is forever linked with a bleak period in American political history, beat Sen. Robert M. La Follette, Jr. in the Wisconsin Republican primary. Young Bob La Follette had replaced his father, Fighting Bob La Follette, in the Senate when the elder icon of the famous Wisconsin political family died in 1925. Robert La Follette, Sr. was selected in 1955 as one of the five greatest U.S. Senators.

By all accounts Young Bob was a serious, studious legislator determined to carry on his father’s progressive political legacy. La Follette was also supremely independent. He broke ranks with the old-line Republican Party in 1932 to support Franklin Roosevelt, supported much of FDR’s New Deal legislation and was a champion of civil liberties when such things were not very popular. A measure of La Follette’s respect in the Senate is contained in the intriguing fact that, although elected as a Republican, Democrats gave him the chairmanship of an important labor investigations committee in the 1930’s. He also helped pass landmark federal government reorganization legislation near the end of his Senate career.

McCarthy’s career, despite regular efforts to rehabilitate the reputation of the bully from Appleton, is well documented. He was shameless as a self promoter, trampled on the very idea of civil liberties and was ultimately censured by the Senate in 1954. His death at 49 in 1957 was directly related to his years of heavy drinking.

After service in the Truman Administration, young Bob La Follette’s life also came to a tragic end. He committed suicide in 1953.

Nelson – Kasten

In 1980, Wisconsin voters turned out another remarkable Senator, Gaylord Nelson. First elected to the Senate in 1963, Nelson, a former Wisconsin Governor, became one of the foremost champions in the Congress of conservation legislation. Nelson supported trails legislation, sponsored or co-sponsored the Wilderness Act and the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. It was Gaylord Nelson’s idea to have the very first Earth Day in 1970. The event was important because, as Nelson later said, the country needed “a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy and, finally, force this issue permanently onto the national political agenda.”

President Clinton presented Nelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995, fifteen years after his defeat by Robert Kasten in the Reagan landslide of 1980.

Kasten went on to, charitably, a less-than-distinguished two terms in the Senate. Kasten now has his own consulting business. Defeated for re-election in 1992, Kasten was a part of the Class of 1980 that included Idaho’s Steve Symms, Indiana’s Dan Quayle, New York’s Al D’Amato and South Dakota’s James Abdnor. None of whom, history would say, made much of a lasting mark in the United States Senate.

Feingold – Johnson

It remains to be seen if the most recent Senate election in Wisconsin, where Sen. Russ Feingold lost re-election, continues the McCarthy – Kasten pattern of replacing an accomplished, national figure with a senator who doesn’t quite measure up.

Feingold, say what you will about his generally liberal politics, was widely seen as a serious legislator with one of the most independent records in the Senate. Republican John McCain got downright emotional in talking about Feingold’s Senate career. “I don’t think he is replaceable,” McCain said during a floor speech.

History will judge, but Feingold’s principled opposition to the U.S.A. Patriot Act and the Iraq War, not to mention his bipartisan work with McCain on campaign finance reform, mark him as someone who made a difference during three terms in the Senate.

Sen-elect Ron Johnson – he beat Feingold by 105,000 votes in November – came out of no where to do so. Johnson is a plastic manufacturer, a favorite of the Tea Party movement and has never held public office.

It has been said that we get the government we deserve. One wonders, with the perfect hindsight of history, if the great state of Wisconsin, proud of its cheese and Packers, might not like to replay at least a couple of its 20th Century U.S. Senate elections?

The judgment passing of history can be rather harsh on whether we voters always make the best choices. Put a different way, looking back on Wisconsin’s Senate history, another term for a Bob La Follette and a Gaylord Nelson might look pretty good right now.

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