Republican Sen. Ron Johnson has an obligation to defend former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, his Democratic challenger who is being attacked unfairly by a so-called “third-party” group that is led by veteran Republican aides.
We understand that politicians cannot always be held responsible for everything that is said by their allies, supporters or enthusiasts.
But, in the case of a recent attack that touches on particularly sensitive and concerning issues, and that clearly paints an untrue picture of Feingold, Johnson can and should make it clear he recognizes and rejects false statements regarding troubles at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Tomah.
Last week, the Wisconsin Alliance for Reform ran a full-page ad in the Green Bay Press-Gazette that attacked Feingold, who is challenging Johnson in the 2016 election. The ad suggested that Feingold had ignored problems at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Specifically, the ad claimed, "Feingold received a memo outlining the over-prescription of narcotics to veterans" at the center. Five years after the memo was written, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, Jason Simcakoski, who was being treated by doctors at the facility, died from a bad mixture of medications.
"When leaders fail to take action, deadly consequences can follow," the anti-Feingold ad warned ominously. There’s just one problem: The person who wrote the 2009 memo referenced in the ad — Lin Ellinghuysen, president of the American Federation of Government Employees local at Tomah — told the Journal Sentinel that the ad was "not truthful."
According to the report, “Ellinghuysen told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that she made an error in marking the memo as being hand-delivered to the offices of Democratic lawmakers (Feingold and U.S. Rep. Ron Kind and then-Rep. Dave Obey). She said she made an assumption but that the deliveries did not occur.”
Feingold says, "The ad claims that somehow our office knew about this. That's not true. There's no record in our office at all that we knew about it. Rep. Kind says the same thing about his office. Apparently someone was intending to give the information to our office, but there's no record that we ever got it. So it's not true."
So the record is clear. The person who wrote the memo says it was not delivered to Feingold, and Feingold confirms that there is no record of its receipt.
That’s the point at which the Republican incumbent should step up and say the attack on his rival — by a group that the Wisconsin State Journal notes is headed by former GOP staffers — is wrong and unfair.
Yet neither Johnson nor his campaign has done this.
Instead, the campaign has simply accused Feingold of trying to “play the blame game” for noting that Johnson's office had, in 2014, failed to refer a whistleblower's complaints about problems at the veterans medical center to a U.S. Senate oversight committee.
Political races always feature a back-and-forth between candidates and their backers. And it comes as no surprise that the Johnson camp would quibble with Feingold’s assertion that Johnson is the "guy who dropped the ball" when it came to responding to troubles at Tomah.
But what Johnson and his aides cannot do is let false impressions be perpetuated by a group that is attacking Feingold — and, in so doing, benefiting Johnson.
The senator has a particular responsibility to made it clear that there was no failure to take action on the part of Russ Feingold — and that any suggestion that such a failure occurred is, as Lin Ellinghuysen explained, “not truthful.”
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