Stung by a TV ad from Democratic U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold portraying him as anti-worker for supporting foreign trade deals, Republican challenger Ron Johnson is striking back.
In a new TV ad, Johnson tries to tarnish Feingold’s pro-labor credentials by casting him as a desperate hypocrite on trade.
Where Feingold has touted his opposition to what he calls unfair trade deals with China, Mexico and other countries, the Johnson ad links Feingold to job creation in China -- not through trade deals, but his vote on the 2009 stimulus package.
The Johnson ad begins with a narrator saying: "Russ Feingold ... desperate ... running a misleading, negative campaign." The video pans across headlines from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about PolitiFact Wisconsin items that rated past Feingold claims as Half True and Pants on Fire.
Then it turns to trade.
"Feingold says one thing, does another," the ad’s narrator charges. "Feingold voted the party line for the stimulus bill that allowed U.S. tax dollars to go to foreign companies to create manufacturing jobs overseas."
A large graphic then pops up and lingers -- "Create 3,000 jobs in China" -- as the narrators says: "Democrat senators said the bill will create 3,000 jobs in China alone."
So by supporting the stimulus bill, did Feingold sell out his stance on trade and pay for 3,000 jobs in China?
That’s a big charge. Let’s dig in.
While there is no question Feingold supported the stimulus bill, the ad’s claims turn on whether the measure supports overseas jobs in general, and the jobs in China specifically.
With the China reference, the ad echoes spots by various congressional candidates across the country that -- according to an Oct. 9, 2010 New York Times article -- play on fears about China’s economic ascendancy.
As backup, the Johnson campaign cites two sources: a March 3, 2010 press release by Democratic senators, including Charles Schumer of New York, and a story the same day by Politico that picked up on the press release.
The controversy arose after a report by the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University found that overseas firms had received 79 percent of $2.1 billion in renewable-energy grants under the stimulus plan, as PolitiFact National later recounted. That $2.1 billion piece is a tiny portion -- not even 1 percent -- of the overall $787 billion stimulus deal.
Only U.S. energy projects can be funded under the stimulus plan, but overseas companies were ahead of America on wind-turbine production, so many of those projects are being developed by the American subsidiaries of foreign companies, PolitiFact National has reported.
This detail is glossed over in the ad, which suggests the stimulus money is primarily aimed at creating jobs overseas.
The Investigative Reporting Workshop report included reference to a west Texas wind farm proposal that would use made-in-China wind turbines, which would potentially create up to 3,000 jobs in China. That prompted Schumer and the other Democrats to condemn that prospect in a news release.
The release described the Texas project as "on the verge" of receiving $450 million in stimulus funds.
That release overstated the case.
News accounts at the time quoted project officials in the U.S.-China joint venture as saying they would apply for stimulus funding, and the China jobs would total 2,400 to 3,000 jobs, with a much smaller number created in the United States.
But much has changed since fall 2009, when the project was announced.
The outcry over the investigation led to negotiations between the U.S. Steelworkers union and the U.S.-China joint venture.
In March 2010, the project announced that its Chinese manufacturing partner would build turbines at a plant in Nevada, creating up to 300 jobs there. The plant, which will have other manufacturing uses, could create a total of 1,000 jobs, project officials estimated.
In August, 2010, the United Steelworkers announced a deal with the wind-farm partners that they say will assure that major components for the project will be made in the United States.
According to United Steelworkers national spokesman Wayne Ranick, under the deal, a total of 1,000 U.S. jobs could be created by establishing a domestic supply chain for the project. Wind machines require hundreds of parts and even when key parts are made overseas, much of the work can be done domestically, renewable energy officials say.
Project officials now say that a minimum of 70 percent of each wind turbine, including the massive towers and blades, will be wholly manufactured in the United States and made of American steel.
Project officials no longer put an estimate on the Chinese manufacturing jobs, saying that the "vast majority" of all jobs created by the wind farm will be in the United States.
Finally, the Texas project, which is in its early stages, has not applied for or received any stimulus funding to date, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
They are eligible to do so, however, and have not ruled out applying later.
In any case, the Johnson ad twists the reality of the Democratic news release it cites. The senators were opposed to the prospect of the jobs going to China. The Johnson ad presents their statement as some sort of virtue of the Democratic-backed stimulus plan.
The ad also leaves a false impression of Feingold’s views on Buy American provisions, including in relation to the stimulus, and on trade with China.
Feingold is a longtime advocate of Buy American provisions.
In the stimulus debate, it was largely Republicans and business groups, as well as multinational companies and U.S. trading partners, who objected to including strict Buy American rules they viewed as overly protectionist.
Feingold voted against a Republican amendment that would have killed the Buy American provision in its entirety, roll call records show.
He did support the compromise version that survived.
In the Senate, Feingold has voted consistently against foreign trade agreements he deems as damaging to Wisconsin jobs because he believes they favor foreign competitors. This includes a 2000 vote against granting China permanent most-favored nation status for trade.
Let’s take stock:
In making his claim, Johnson notes that a side effect of the stimulus bill, which Feingold backed, was that in limited cases -- particularly in renewable energy -- foreign companies would benefit from some of the money. The approach spurs job growth in America as well, but undeniably would create some overseas jobs, too. Johnson tries to bolster this claim by citing a specific Texas project involving China and some 3,000 related jobs to be created there.
But he twists Democratic objections to the possibility into alleged support for it. And the outcry itself has prompted revisions that mean more jobs here -- and so far no application has been made by project officials for any stimulus money. What’s more, Feingold backed the Buy American provisions that were included in the bill, saying they were a step forward.
We rate Johnson’s claim Barely True.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.