WAUSAU, Wis. (AP) — Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold on Monday called on Ron Johnson, the Republican businessman trying to unseat him, to demand that third-party groups who run attack ads disclose who is funding them.
Feingold, who is seeking his fourth term, issued his challenge during the candidates' second debate in four days. Recent polls suggest Johnson has a slight lead.
Johnson said he hasn't objected to third-party attack ads in his favor because the groups behind them have a right to free speech. He also said he has no control over the groups.
A better solution, he said, is "total transparency on the Internet," where donors' names could be listed for everyone to see.
The exchange came in response to a question about a Supreme Court ruling this year that made it easier for corporations and unions to spend money in elections.
"Easily one of the worst decisions in the history of the Supreme Court," Feingold said. It allows outside groups with no accountability to exert dangerous influence on Wisconsin's race, he said.
In a spirited exchange, Feingold repeatedly called on Johnson to demand that the groups disclose who their donors are. After continuing to insist that nothing he said would matter, Johnson eventually shrugged and said, "Disclose."
A number of ads have run on Wisconsin television accusing Feingold of supporting expensive bills that have run the government deeper into debt. One was from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a group that Democrats allege — with no evidence — is financed through foreign funds.
Johnson told reporters afterward that Feingold is himself the beneficiary of third-party fundraising, such as the left-leaning MoveOn.org and labor unions.
"Sure, disclose who your donors are (too)," Johnson said.
During the hourlong debate, Johnson added more substance to his criticisms of health care reform. He has previously said the main reason he's running for office is to repeal the law.
A panelist asked how Johnson could justify repealing aspects of the bill that are widely seen as popular, such as the idea that insurance companies can no longer deny coverage on the basis of pre-existing conditions.
"The individual problems with health care could have been addressed with individual bills," he said. That would have eliminated the more costly and unnecessary parts of the measure, he said.
Feingold said Congress did try to pass smaller bills but the insurance industry kept killing them.
Johnson allowed himself some wiggle room on the issue of Social Security. He has repeatedly said he opposes privatization but that all options are on the table.
On Monday he said he'd take two options off the table: a "job-killing payroll tax increase" and forcing privatization on anyone.
Johnson attacked Feingold over the senator's support of the economic stimulus bill. Johnson, who runs a 120-person plastics company in Oshkosh, said jobs are created by small businesses like his, not through government programs.
Feingold countered that the bill led to tax cuts for 95 percent of working families and funded projects in construction and weatherization. Even so, he added, the bill was an emergency act meant to provide immediate support, not to create long-term jobs.
In response to a question about climate change, Johnson reiterated that he doesn't believe it has been proven that mankind has contributed to global warming. Feingold said he trusts the judgment of scientists who acknowledge global warming is real.
The issue of free speech arose a second time in the debate. Johnson criticized Feingold for not supporting a resolution censuring MoveOn.org for running an ad in 2007 referring to Gen. David Petraeus, then the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, as "General Betray Us."
Feingold said MoveOn.org was entitled to its opinion, and added that the Senate had more important things to worry about than reprimanding the group.
"This is serious work we do in the Senate," he said.
Russ Feingold: http://www.russfeingold.org
Ron Johnson: http://www.ronjohnsonforsenate.com