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20 attacks in the Ron Johnson-Russ Feingold U.S. Senate race, rated

Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (left) and his Democratic challenger, Russ Feingold, shake hands after their debate in Milwaukee on Oct. 18, 2016. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel photo by Mark Hoffman) Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (left) and his Democratic challenger, Russ Feingold, shake hands after their debate in Milwaukee on Oct. 18, 2016. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel photo by Mark Hoffman)

Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (left) and his Democratic challenger, Russ Feingold, shake hands after their debate in Milwaukee on Oct. 18, 2016. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel photo by Mark Hoffman)

Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher November 1, 2016

In election campaigns, attack ads fill the airwaves like decals cover the body of a NASCAR race car.

And in the Wisconsin U.S. Senate race, which will be decided Nov. 8, 2016, the attacks are picking up speed.

It can all be rather bewildering.

So, PolitiFact Wisconsin is raising the yellow caution flag.

Here are 20 of the most important, and most often repeated, attacks we’ve rated on the Truth-O-Meter -- that is, attacks made by or against Republican U.S. Sen Ron Johnson or  Democrat Russ Feingold, who Johnson ousted in 2010.

In presenting the claims, we alternate between an attack made on Johnson and an attack made on Feingold. Unless otherwise noted, the attack was made by one against the other.

(Visit for more fact checks that we’ll post in the Senate race ahead of election day.)

Environment: Johnson "doesn't even believe that there's a man-made role in climate change."

Our rating: Mostly True.

Johnson did not support a Senate amendment to acknowledge a man-made role in climate change and expressed skepticism each of the few times he acknowledged humans might contribute. He has acknowledged at times that humans can play a role, but downplayed how significant that role might be.

Taxes: Feingold "voted over 250 times to raise taxes."

Our rating: False.

Though Feingold cast tax-related votes that many times, more than half of those came on non-binding resolutions that took a position in favor of raising taxes but did not raise taxes by themselves. The Americans for Prosperity claim also does not account for the large number of votes that were actually against a tax cut, not in favor of a tax increase.

Drugs: Johnson "has essentially done nothing" to fight heroin addiction and opioid abuse.

Our rating: False.

Johnson voted for a major bill aimed at confronting the heroin-opioids problem, introduced a bill aimed at curbing overprescription of opioids and held Senate committee hearings on the problem.

Guns: Feingold "supported judges who voted to deny your individual Second Amendment right. … (He) promises to protect those rights, but that's not what his record shows."

Our rating: Mostly False.

Feingold did vote to appoint judges who, after being confirmed, disagreed that the Second Amendment provides for an individual right to possess a gun. But Feingold also voted to appoint judges who have issued rulings strengthening gun rights and he has stated clearly he supports an individual’s right to own a gun.

Trade: Johnson "helped companies ship jobs overseas."

Our rating: False.

The reference is to Johnson’s votes for free trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. There are estimates that the largest, with South Korea, resulted in a loss of jobs in the United States. But those estimates are disputed, largely because of how difficult it is to isolate one cause for changes in employment. Moreover, the job-loss estimates do not state that any U.S. jobs were shipped overseas.

Emails: Feingold, "just like Hillary Clinton," had a "run-in with corruption and scandal by using a personal slush fund -- a.k.a. the Feingold Foundation --  while plotting another run for U.S. Senate."

Our rating: Mostly False.

There is no Feingold Foundation and the Wisconsin Republican Party’s "personal slush fund" reference is to a political action committee established by Feingold that spent significant sums that benefited Feingold -- for salaries and consulting fees to Feingold and his former aides, and to buy copies of a book he wrote.

But the Clinton Foundation got into controversy not over its spending, but for potential conflicts of interest, given that it accepted donations from foreign countries that had business before Clinton as secretary of state. And while Clinton clearly broke State Department rules by setting up a private email system, nothing has been established beyond allegations that Feingold did anything improper with emails during his employment by the State Department.

Personal career: Johnson gave himself a $10 million "sweetheart corporate payout."

Our rating: Half True.

The amount is accurate, and Johnson did essentially give it to himself since he acknowledged he was the one to approve it. But there’s no evidence to show this payment was unusual or out of line, as the tone and use of the "sweetheart" descriptor imply. An industry trade publication said the amount is reasonable given Johnson’s role and longevity.

Terrorism: Feingold was the "only senator to vote against Homeland Security."

Our rating: False.

He was one of nine (though he was the lone senator to vote against the Patriot Act).

Social Security: Johnson "supported a plan to cut benefits and raise the retirement age" for Social Security.

Our rating: Mostly False.

The Wisconsin Democratic Party could not cite and we couldn’t find any proposal to make those changes that was supported by Johnson. Johnson has said he is open to considering such proposals and he voted for a federal budget proposal that contained them. But voting for a federal budget proposal and its myriad programs isn’t an explicit show of support for cutting benefits and raising the retirement age for Social Security.

Campaign finance: Feingold broke his 1992 promise to always get the majority of funding from Wisconsin residents.

Our rating: True.

Feingold used the words "pledge" and "promise" in 1992 while asserting his grassroots funding plan was for that election as well a "for the future." About 70 percent of individual contributions to his campaign during this election cycle came from out of state, when we did this fact check in September 2016.

Medicare: Johnson voted to turn Medicare "into a voucher program."

Our rating: Mostly True.

To some health policy experts, there are technical differences between voucher and premium supports -- the latter term being preferred by Johnson and other Republicans when it comes to Medicare changes. But as the Wisconsin Democratic Party correctly stated, under proposals from House Speaker Paul Ryan and backed by Johnson, Medicare would no longer pay fees to health care providers -- instead, Medicare beneficiaries would get a fixed subsidy to use toward their health care.

Defense: Feingold "voted against authorizing our military 11 separate times."

Our rating: Half True.

Feingold did vote 11 times against the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual bill that authorizes defense spending levels and covers policy issues such as gays in the military. But those were not votes to defund the military, given that funding takes place only through appropriations bills. Experts told us conclusions can’t be drawn about why a lawmaker votes no on the NDAA, given that sometimes lawmakers oppose it because of certain policy provisions.

Veterans: Johnson said specifically that he hopes the first steps occur to privatize the" Veterans Administration.

Our rating: Half True.

Johnson has advocated for privatizing at least parts of the VA system, but not for moving to a completely private system.

Health care: Feingold "was the deciding vote on Obamacare."

Our rating: Mostly False.

Obamacare backers needed 60 yes votes on a crucial vote in the Senate that paved the way for final Senate passage of the health care reform bill, and Feingold cast one of those votes. But to call it the deciding vote is misleading in that support from Feingold -- unlike some other senators who had to be persuaded to vote yes -- was never in doubt.

Minimum wage: Johnson "opposes entirely a federal minimum wage," except perhaps for "guest workers."

Our rating: True.

It may not be a position Johnson has stated often, but when asked in 2014 whether there should be a federal minimum wage, Johnson said there should not be one, other than perhaps one for guest workers. And while he may not be trying to repeal the wage, Johnson didn’t dispute the accuracy of Feingold’s claim -- that he is against having a federal minimum, except perhaps for guest workers coming in from outside the United States.

Campaign financing: Feingold "wanted to get money out of politics. Now he's profiting from that same dark money."

Our rating: Half True.

Feingold received $59,500 in salary from Progressives United Inc., a non-profit founded by Feingold that is not required to disclose its donors, but stopped receiving payments in 2013.

While it was active, the group voluntarily listed its donors on its website. But those lists are no longer readily accessible, since the group’s website is no longer active.

Student loans: Johnson "is opposed to all government-assisted student loans."

Our rating: Mostly True.

Johnson has said the government never should have gotten involved in student loans, shouldn’t be involved in it and should look to gradually get out of it. But one of his votes helped student borrowers in the short term, though that measure could lead to higher interest rates in future years, since the rates are tied to changes in the financial markets.

Personal career: Feingold is "a career politician."

Our rating: Mostly True.

Other than a short stretches, it’s clear the lion’s share of Feingold’s career has been in politics or government.

Trade: Johnson justifies his support of trade agreements by saying the U.S. has the Trade Adjustment Assistance program for displaced workers, but then he "voted to eliminate it."

Our rating: Mostly False.

Johnson referred only generally to worker "protections," not to the TAA specifically. He did vote against reauthorizing the program in 2011 and also voted around the same time to pare down funding, which would have had the effect of cutting a career training program.

Immigration: Feingold voted to give Social Security benefits to illegal immigrants.

Our rating: False.

Johnson has repeated this claim, which we first rated in 2010. A 2006 amendment cited by Johnson, which Feingold did oppose, would not have prevented illegals from receiving Social Security benefits. They already were barred. In fact, Feingold wound up voting for a more modest version of the amendment the following year.
















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20 attacks in the Ron Johnson-Russ Feingold U.S. Senate race, rated