Two hours into the long night that would see the defeat of Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold in his run for a fourth term, NBC News projected a win for Republican challenger Ron Johnson. But Feingold’s campaign manager, George Aldrich, was not giving up.
He grabbed the microphone and told the crowd of Feingold backers that packed a Middleton hotel ballroom: “Russ is down by 80,000 votes, but … up to 1.4 million votes haven’t been counted.”
Then he delivered the applause line: “Not a single vote from Madison has been counted.”
Feingold’s progressive backers knew that their candidate’s best hope rested with the voters of the great citadel of progressivism — the college town, the state government town, the city where votes for liberal candidates are not so much counted as weighed.
If anyplace could save Feingold it would be Madison — and surrounding Dane County.
After all, Dane County had saved Russ Feingold before. In 1998, when Feingold was facing a free-spending challenge from Congressman Mark Neumann, he was reelected by less than 38,000 votes. That margin came from Dane County. Could it happen again?
Not this time.
Feingold lost this year by more than 120,000 votes in a statewide result that saw Feingold pull 47 percent of the vote to 52 percent for Johnson.
Dane County could not produce enough votes for the Democrat who served as its state senator from 1983 to 1993.
But it sure tried.
Feingold beat Ron Johnson in Dane County by a vote of 153,826 to 65,867 — 70 percent to 30 percent.
The senator won every single precinct in the city of Madison, and all but two of the county’s dozens of municipalities — the towns of Bristol and Dane — where he came within whiskers of winning.
And some of those Madison precincts delivered epic margins of victory for Feingold.
In Ward 34 (O’Keefe Middle School), Feingold beat Johnson by a 25-1 margin — 2,431 to 90. In the neighboring Ward 33 (Olbrich Botanical Gardens), it was almost 20-1. And across the isthmus, wards posted better than 10-1 margins for Feingold.
Traditionally Republican Maple Bluff gave Feingold an easy win, as did other Madison suburbs. Shorewood Hill backed the senator by a roughly 6-1 margin.
And so it went across Madison and Dane County.
Feingold won big, finishing stronger than fellow Democrats Tom Barrett, the party’s gubernatorial nominee, and Tammy Baldwin, the hugely popular congresswoman from the 2nd district.
But Dane County, which sent Feingold to the state Senate in 1982, helped him get to the U.S. Senate in 1992, and saved that Senate seat for him in 1998, couldn’t quite build a sufficient breakwall to block the Republican wave of 2010.