LA CROSSE, Wisconsin — Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson took swipes at his newly announced Democratic challenger Russ Feingold on Saturday, alleging the former senator is unwilling to face the biggest issues facing the country, his signature campaign finance law was an "abject failure" and that he will never hold a leadership position in the Senate.
Johnson went after Feingold both in his speech at the Republican Party convention and when talking with reporters afterward. Feingold announced he was running on Thursday, setting up a possible rematch of the 2010 race that Johnson won.
Johnson's comments provide a preview of the likely narrative of the campaign 17 months before the election in November 2016.
"What we do not need are career politicians that simply run for office to somebody with a big title," Johnson told about 1,000 convention goers. "We don't need that. The reason 2016 is so important is we have to find the leaders that will face reality, that will solve problems."
Later, Johnson told reporters that he doesn't believe Feingold is willing to face the hard facts about problems like paying for Social Security and solving the national debt.
Johnson also went after the McCain-Feingold campaign finance overhaul law. Feingold's most well-known law, it attempted to limit the influence of special interest money by banning soft money — unregulated donations by corporations, unions and the wealthy.
Another key part of that law banning union- and corporate-paid issue ads in the closing days of election campaigns was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in 2010.
"His campaign finance law was an abject failure," Johnson said. "He was going to get big money out of politics, right? Well that didn't work out quite that way. ... It did the exact opposite of what it intended to do."
Johnson, chairman of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, also said that Feingold would never chair a committee if elected.
Feingold's campaign manager Tom Russell issued an email statement in response.
"Senator Johnson has given Wisconsin a disappointing and divisive four years," Russell said. "He's shown time and again that he's just a partisan ideologue who doesn't listen to the concerns of Wisconsinites, only the concerns of corporate special interests and his multi-millionaire crowd."
Johnson, the chief executive of a plastics manufacturer in Oshkosh, was a political newcomer who got involved with the tea party movement in 2010 and ran against Feingold. He spent more than $8 million of his own money on the race.
Johnson said Saturday that he will spend enough money this time that's needed to get his message out.
Johnson tried to cast Feingold as a Washington insider. Johnson said he didn't think he would have a problem casting himself as an outsider given that he's now seeking re-election.
"Trust me, in Washington, D.C., I'm an outsider," Johnson said. "I have a completely different perspective than most of my colleagues."
Gov. Scott Walker, in his convention speech, said Johnson was not a politician.
"He's a job creator," Walker said. "He's a servant leader. ... We need to make sure that in 2016 we do everything that's required to make sure he comes back to the United States Senate."
Johnson said in his speech that he anticipated a "vicious campaign" but he told reporters later he was confident he could win, citing gains Republicans have made the past four years both in the state Legislature and Congress.
The seat is a key target for Democrats looking to regain control of the Senate that Republicans control 54-44. Two independents caucus with Democrats.
Democrats are optimistic given that unlike in 2010, the race in 2016 comes in a presidential year when Democratic voters in Wisconsin historically far outnumber Republicans. No Republican has won a Senate seat in Wisconsin since Bob Kasten defeated Gaylord Nelson in 1980.
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