OSHKOSH — U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, speaking to supporters Monday to kick off his re-election campaign, painted a dire picture of the nation’s woes but said he wants a second term to put the country back on course.
In a possible sign of the campaign to come, Johnson and his conservative allies sought to put Democratic opponent Russ Feingold on the defensive Monday with withering attacks.
Johnson railed against Feingold as an undistinguished career politician.
And a super PAC funded by billionaire conservative Charles Koch debuted a $2 million advertising campaign featuring VA whistleblower Ryan Honl. Using footage of a tearful Honl, it savages Feingold for his alleged mishandling of the scandal involving mistreatment of veterans at the Tomah VA Medical Center.
About 200 Johnson supporters attended the event at Pacur, the plastic fabrication business he co-founded. It teed up a campaign tour that will take Johnson across the state in coming days.
The first-term senator first took elected office after he defeated Feingold, D-Middleton, in 2010 — riding a message of fiscal restraint and backlash to President Barack Obama’s then-new health care law.
Johnson told supporters Monday that the situation in Washington has gotten worse since he took office.
“Why would I do this again? Why don’t I just come home to Oshkosh and just say: ‘It’s such a mess; it’s so frustrating; I’m angry too; I’m just going to give up?’ Because I can’t quit on America,” Johnson told supporters.
Johnson also blasted Feingold’s record during his 18 years in the U.S. Senate, from 1993 to 2011.
“What’d he ever accomplish — other than campaign finance reform, which was a miserable failure?” Johnson said of his opponent.
Feingold co-authored a sweeping campaign finance overhaul bill with Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain that became law in 2002. Portions of it were struck down by the Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2010.
‘Willing to take
the tough votes’
In an interview after the event with the Wisconsin State Journal, Johnson continued to go after Feingold, casting his opponent as a grasping, lifelong politician “desperate” to regain power — and himself as a reluctant public servant.
“I would rather go home,” Johnson said. “But I realize somebody like me is pretty rare — somebody willing to take the tough votes to solve the problems.”
Feingold campaign spokesman Michael Tyler responded to Johnson with a statement saying Feingold is the only candidate who’s listening to Wisconsinites.
“Senator Johnson has spent the last six years as a partisan shill who thinks our economy should only work for billionaires and CEOs like himself,” Tyler said. “Russ is fighting for an economy that works for middle-class and working Wisconsin families.”
The ad criticizing Feingold on the VA scandal begins airing Wednesday in TV and digital formats. It comes from Freedom Partners Action Fund, a super PAC whose donors include Koch and Wisconsin businesswoman Diane Hendricks.
The ad features Honl, a former Tomah VA employee who filed complaints about wrongdoing at the Tomah facility. The center has been dogged by reports of over-prescription of opiate drugs to veterans, and a federal investigation found deficiencies in care at Tomah contributed to the 2014 death of a U.S. Marine from Stevens Point, Jason Simcakoski.
In the ad, Honl says Feingold “ignored veterans’ concerns while veterans were dying at the facility.” He cites a memo warning of problems at Tomah, which was marked as having been hand-delivered to Feingold’s U.S. Senate office in 2009.
Feingold has denied his office received the memo, and its author has reversed her prior claims that a colleague delivered it to Feingold’s office, saying she no longer believes that occurred.
Feingold’s campaign hit back hard on the Freedom Partners ad Monday, saying “Johnson knows for a fact that this attack is false.”
“That’s why he’s shamefully hiding behind the Koch brothers while they lob up smears on his behalf,” Tyler said. “Senator Johnson failed to protect our veterans, so instead of accepting responsibility, he and his allies have blamed his own staff and actively politicized a tragedy to the tune of over $2 million in dark money attack ads.”
A progressive group has charged Johnson with fumbling his opportunity to act on signs of trouble at Tomah, citing reports that his office failed to relay a complaint to the Democratic chairwoman of a Senate panel that could’ve acted on them.
Polls consistently have shown Feingold leading Johnson in the U.S. Senate race. The Marquette Law School Poll has shown Feingold leading, at various points in the past year, by margins between 3 and 16 percentage points.
With a little more than six months left in the campaign, Johnson’s statewide tour signals a heightened focus on his political future. Johnson is expected to focus his campaign tour on economic issues — particularly jobs in the manufacturing and timber industries at the initial stops in northeastern Wisconsin, according to his campaign.
Also Monday, Johnson declined, when asked by the State Journal, to say who he voted for in last month’s presidential primary.
The Republican candidates in the Wisconsin primary were businessman Donald Trump, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Trump, the national front-runner, finished a distant second in Wisconsin and remains a distrusted figure by many in the state’s Republican establishment and its conservative movement.
“That’s a secret ballot,” Johnson said of the primary vote. “I am responsible for what I’ve been doing — my actions and my words, and that’s pretty much what this campaign’s going to be.” Feingold also has declined to reveal who he voted for in the primary.