MADISON, Wis. — Republican Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson said both he and Donald Trump are change agents, defended himself from charges that he’s in the pocket of special interests by saying “I am the working man” and accused the signature campaign finance reform championed by his challenger Russ Feingold as a “spectacular failure” in a debate Tuesday.
Johnson and Feingold sat side by side in the spirited and sometimes contentious debate in Milwaukee, the second and final face-off that comes three weeks before the election. Johnson and Feingold disagreed on a bevy of issues, from their support of their party’s presidential nominees, the Affordable Care Act, free trade, the minimum wage, immigration enforcement and reform and whose interests they would back in the Senate.
Johnson’s support for Trump has hung over the race, one of the most closely watched Senate contests in the country. While Johnson has not backed away from supporting Trump, he’s also not campaigned with him in Wisconsin — including a stop Trump made Monday in Green Bay.
Johnson said voters were looking for dramatic change and both he and Trump are on the right side of the biggest issues, like how to fight terrorism and the importance of nominating conservatives to the Supreme Court.
“Our nominee is a change agent,” the incumbent Johnson said. “I’m a change agent.”
Johnson challenged Feingold to defend his support for Clinton, who Feingold had described as honest and trustworthy. Feingold, who served 18 years in the Senate before being defeated by Johnson in 2010, reiterated that assessment of Clinton, saying that was his experience in working with her when she was first lady, a senator and secretary of state.
“She’s not perfect, but she’s so much better than Donald Trump,” said Feingold, who added that Trump would “destabilize” the world.
Feingold and Johnson also disagreed sharply on campaign finance. Feingold is known for the law designed to cut back on the influence of special interest money in politics he co-wrote with Arizona Sen. John McCain, large portions of which were struck down by the landmark Citizens United Supreme Court ruling.
Johnson called the law a “spectacular failure” that “simply didn’t work at all.” He also blasted Feingold for taking a majority of his campaign donations from people living outside of Wisconsin, despite pledging in his first Senate run in 1992 never to do that.
Feingold said he’s justified in doing that because the campaign finance landscape is so different now than then. He accused Johnson of being in the pocket of special interests, based on his voting record and the fact that outside groups are spending more to help him in the campaign than Feingold.
“He is benefiting enormously from this corrupt system, these hidden contributions that aren’t reported,” Feingold said.
But Johnson, who helped build a plastics manufacturing company in Oshkosh before he ran for the Senate and beat Feingold in 2010, said at his heart he’s still that businessman. He recalled working long hours building the company.
“I am the working man,” Johnson said.
Feingold said Johnson has been ineffective as senator and is disqualified to serve because of his blocking of Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Johnson, who said he would not vote for “liberal activists,” said he wants to wait on taking a vote until after a new president and Senate is elected.
The 90-minute debate took place on the same day a new statewide poll from St. Norbert College showed Feingold leading the race 52 percent to Johnson’s 40 percent, with a margin of plus or minus almost 3.8 points. A Marquette law school poll a week ago had the race about even.