Trying to remember Kohl
Trying to remember Kohl
List of Senate achievements not exactly long
Waukesha Freeman, Page A6 Opinion, 12/27/12
Is there an award for the least interesting development of 2012? The retirement of Herb Kohl from the Senate prompts the question, who will notice?
Kohl was elected in 1988 largely on the strength of his personal wealth and lackluster opponents. He was a late entry into the Democratic primary that included former Gov. Tony Earl, Ed Garvey, and Secretary of State Doug La Follette. Not exactly murderer’s row.
Kohl’s next opponent was the hopeless Susan Engeleiter. Short of funds early, her campaign was most notable for actually taunting Kohl with a fruitcake that he allegedly sold the defense department at an inflated price. She was dispatched handily, and a Senate career was born.
(For the trivia file, Engeleiter was Jim Sensenbrenner’s opponent in the Republican primary for congress in 1978.) Kohl’s campaign introduced the slogan “Nobody’s senator but yours.” Intended to indicate that the future senator was immune to the special interests, it also signaled what became a pattern for every election that followed. Kohl’s personal wealth would buy the election.
Because of campaign finance reform, any potential opponent for Kohl was limited in the amount of contributions they could seek from individuals. Kohl, one of the richest men in the Senate, had the potential of spending millions of his own money.
Most potentially credible opponents sat on the sidelines. In his re-election campaigns, Kohl easily defeated State Sen. Bob Welch. He crushed John Gillespie. Then in 2006, Kohl received over 67 percent of the vote against oddball candidate Robert Lorge.
Despite the overwhelming wins, Kohl was little known outside of Wisconsin. Those who did know him knew him mostly as the owner of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Compared to his more flamboyant colleague Russ Feingold, Kohl was not known for his legislative or even political accomplishments.
Dave Weigel of Slate magazine, when he heard of Kohl’s plans to retire, commented, “With Herb Kohl gone, who will ask the forgettable second round of questions during S(upreme Court) nom(ination) hearings?”
Weigel would later write, “We will always remember the legacy of Herb Kohl. Like the time he… uh… with the thing… and… er…”
Kathryn Lopez of National Review commented that if it wasn’t for Supreme Court confirmation hearings, “I’d just completely forget he is there in the Senate.”
On the great issues of the day, nobody was ever heard asking, “I wonder what Senator Kohl thinks.”
His supporters will point to more parochial concerns that received Kohl’s attention, such as milk pricing. Others will point to his work outside the Senate, including the building of the Kohl Center in Madison.
My family’s favorite Kohl accomplishment was the sponsorship of the flavored milk barn at the State Fair. For 25 cents each our children were introduced to the wonder of root beer milk.
But with Kohl’s announcement of his retirement, attention quickly shifted to his potential successors. On the Democratic side, Congressman Tammy Baldwin had a legislative record less accomplished than Kohl’s.
Democrats developed amnesia when they attacked Republican businessman Eric Hovde for allegedly attempting to buy a Senate seat. Hovde could have appropriated the “Nobody’s senator but yours” tagline and Democrats still would not have caught the irony.
Former Gov. Tommy Thompson became the Republican nominee. He would have been a formidable opponent for Kohl, but never took the risk of running against Kohl’s millions.
Thompson out of money in the primary and he was unable to counter Baldwin’s wellfinanced attack. Baldwin won much the same way Kohl did in 1988, only with special interest money.
With the elections of Baldwin and Ron Johnson two years ago, Wisconsin now has the ideological bookends of the 2012 and the 2010 elections.
How ironic that the senator who is most like Kohl with his business experience and personal financial success is the Republican Johnson. Johnson has already developed a national reputation as a leader in the fight against government spending.
Meanwhile Baldwin is likely to continue to fulfill Kohl’s other legacy as Wisconsin’s senator on the back benches.