MILWAUKEE — U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia was the keynote speaker. Mike Tate delivered his final address as party chairman. But Russ Feingold was the star of the show on Friday at the Democratic Party of Wisconsin's state convention.
The former U.S. Senator laid out a platform for his campaign to unseat Republican Sen. Ron Johnson in 2016, received with cheers, applause and chants of "We want Russ!"
"It's good to be back," he responded.
Feingold, 62, served three terms in the Senate between 1993 and 2011. Johnson, 60, ousted him with a five-point victory in the conservative wave of 2010.
In the years that followed, Feingold served as the State Department's special envoy to the Great Lakes Region of Africa and taught courses at Marquette University and Stanford University.
"My friends, I don't need to tell you our great state has been under attack for four years," Feingold said. "But this can still be the Wisconsin of my childhood and our upbringing. The values of hard work and community — they are not gone. I know we all understand what's possible for Wisconsin's future, with opportunity and innovation and mutual respect pushing us to great things. This can happen. But only if we listen, and only if we act."
Feingold's address to Democrats was divided into themes: where the party stands right now, what it has to offer to Wisconsinites, how to honor people's work and how he'll reach out to voters.
Early on, he acknowledged that Wisconsin Democrats "haven't seen much forward movement lately" — an understatement, given Republican Gov. Scott Walker's three victories in four years and a GOP majority in the Legislature strengthened from 2010 to 2014.
He accused Republicans of growing arrogant from their victories, of working to drive down voter turnout among the state's most disadvantaged and vulnerable citizens and of "mocking" the hard work of Wisconsinites.
"For too long, Republicans have tossed aside Wisconsin's tradition of respect," Feingold said. "For too long, they've talked down to so many of us from their perch of privilege. For too long, they've ignored people's daily efforts to provide for themselves and create opportunities for their families. And just like the attack on voting rights, the efforts by the powerful to make people feel defensive about their work — trying to make people feel bad about what they do — is a cynical political strategy and an attack on Wisconsin."
Feingold painted Johnson as a denier of climate change and of middle-class job security, and slammed the Republican for "not car(ing) about making government work efficiently."
Johnson, who ran as a businessman seeking to make change in Washington, has been deemed one of the most vulnerable senators up for re-election in 2016.
Looking ahead, Feingold touted the importance of rewarding people for hard work, bolstering the state's infrastructure, upping the government's commitment to veterans and supporting farmers, low-wage workers and women's rights.
He also voiced his support for increasing access to education, from early childhood programs to making college more affordable.
Most of the speeches leading up to Feingold's presented him as a beacon of hope to the room full of Democratic activists.
"He’s more principled than we have seen for a long time in the United States Congress," said U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Milwaukee.
Moore cited Feingold's votes against the Iraq War and the Patriot Act, his warnings against the influence of money in politics and his call to censure then-President George W. Bush as signs of integrity.
She referred to him as "the person who had enough principle and enough courage and enough chutzpah to tell all of us, 'Y’all get some backbone,'" while dubbing Johnson "Senator No."
"He's said no to seniors, no to affordable health care, no to raising the minimum wage, no for our students, no for our workers, no for environmental protections," Moore said. "So in 2016, brothers and sisters, we’ve got 522 days before Nov. 8, 2016 to let him know that we are going to say 'no' to Senator No."
The race is sure to be a contentious one. A Marquette University Law School poll released in April showed that in a match-up between Feingold and Johnson, Feingold had the support of 54 percent of registered voters. Thirty-eight percent of voters would support Johnson, while 9 percent stated no preference.
At the time, Johnson declared such polls to be "meaningless."
Asked what will be different for Feingold in 2016, Tate said the biggest difference from 2010 will be that "Russ Feingold will be going back to the Senate."
He slammed Johnson as the "senator of nothing," saying that no Wisconsin family's economic situation has improved because of the senator's actions.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin said she wishes the election could be held today, because Feingold "cannot join the Senate soon enough."
"We need his courage and his passion now more than ever," Baldwin said. "As someone who joined him in voting against the USA Patriot Act a decade ago, I want Russ standing with me to defend our civil liberties. And as someone who always stood up for our state’s proud history of manufacturing, I want Russ standing with me to make sure that Wisconsin workers don’t get screwed by another bad trade deal."
Though Feingold didn't call out the Trans-Pacific Partnership by name, he spoke against "secretive trade deals ... sold on the false promise of elusive global profits" and decried the effects of NAFTA, passed in 1994, on the middle class.
Feingold pledged to visit each of Wisconsin's 72 counties again, something he was known for doing each year during his time in office. He promised to listen "to that great reservoir of common sense — the view of the people of Wisconsin."
"And after listening throughout the state and taking some time to reflect on all we've heard, we will build this campaign together," Feingold said. "We will build a Wisconsin of progress, hard work and respect. And yes, we will wrest control from those who put others down while their profits rise. And we will work hard as we honor everyone's hard work. And, my friends, we will win."