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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Mud and Oil Don’t Mix in Wisconsin Senate Race

With recent polls showing the Wisconsin Senate race tightening, the candidates have started the mudslinging — misrepresenting each other’s positions on drilling for oil in the Great Lakes. Never mind that federal law bans oil drilling in the Great Lakes.

Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold’s ad, “Just Say No,” accuses his GOP opponent Ron Johnson of being “willing to hand over the Great Lakes to the oil companies.” That is misleading, and goes beyond the facts. It’s based on a single interview in which Johnson talks about the need to drill "responsibly" and "safely," when asked whether he supports more domestic drilling, including possibly the Great Lakes.

Johnson responds with an ad, “Feingold Mud,” that distorts the Democrat’s record. Johnson slams Feingold for voting against a broad energy bill that among other things banned drilling in the Great Lakes, disregarding the fact that the senator did so because he felt the bill was not strong enough.

Feingold’s Fuzzy Facts

In his ad, which began airing July 13, Feingold casts himself as a champion of the environment and the Great Lakes, and portrays Johnson as a threat to “a way of life for generations of Wisconsin families.” The ad ominously shows the black outlines of the Gulf spill on a U.S. map and then superimposes that silhouette on the Great Lakes. However, we find the Feingold campaign lacks sufficient evidence to support the claim that Johnson is “willing to hand over the Great Lakes to the oil companies.”

The claim comes from a June 14 interview with Wispolitics.com, which posted an audio of the complete interview. Here is the full question and answer:

Host: Do you want to open up more of the United States — the continental United States — to drilling. I mean, would you support drilling like in the Great Lakes for example, if there was oil found there, or using more exploration in Alaska, in ANWR, those kinds of things?

Johnson, June 14: (Unintelligible word). The bottom line is that we are an oil-based economy, and there’s nothing we’re going to do to get off of that for many, many years, so I think we have to be realistic and recognize that fact, and I think we have to get the oil where it is but we need to do it responsibly. We need to utilize, you know, American ingenuity and American technology to make sure that we do do it environmentally sensitive and safely. I will say I think it is extremely unfair. I think conservatives get a rap that we don’t care about the environment. I care deeply about the environment. I mean, I am a huge outdoorsman. I love the outdoors. My own personal water source comes from a well. I don’t want groundwater contamination. So, I am extremely concerned about protecting the environment, but I think we also have to make sure our economy continues to function. You can’t just shut off oil. We need oil. It’s what drives our economy.

Johnson missed an opportunity to declare outright his opposition to Great Lakes drilling. Feingold could have criticized him for that. Instead, the ad unfairly represents his position by saying the Republican would unconditionally open the Great Lakes to oil drilling.

Johnson, who has never held public office and has no record on energy policy, is responding to a larger question about domestic oil drilling, with the Great Lakes and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge provided as examples. He doesn’t explicitly state that he would support drilling in the lakes, although there is some dispute about the first word — which is unintelligible on the audio. It may be "yeah," as the Feingold campaign insists. It is hard to tell. Even if so, is Johnson saying yes to the broad question of supporting more domestic oil drilling, or yes to drilling specifically in the Great Lakes or ANWR, or both? It’s not clear.

What is clear is that Johnson describes the need for drilling to be done safely and responsibly, and he expresses his concern for the environment.

Johnson quickly issued the following statement on his opposition to drilling in the Great Lakes following the attack made by Feingold:

Johnson campaign website: The 2005 Energy Bill, which Russ Feingold voted against, outlawed drilling in the Great Lakes. I would not support any efforts to overturn the provision which outlaws drilling in the Great Lakes as Wisconsin’s next U.S. Senator. Let me repeat: I would reject any and all efforts to drill in the Great Lakes.

Distorting Feingold’s Record

Johnson also responded to the ad with his own hard-hitting attack on Feingold, launching the “Feingold Mud” ad on July 14.

The ad says Feingold voted “against the law that protected our lakes.” That’s a reference to the Energy Policy Act of 2005, a 550-page bill that set greater fuel efficiency standards on vehicles, encouraged alternative energy development, expanded the domestic oil production, and more. The provision that banned drilling in the Great Lakes was just one section of a much more extensive energy bill. It is true that Feingold voted against the bill, but the ad fails to explain why. Feingold opposed the legislation because he believed it did not go far enough to solve the nation’s energy problems. In a floor speech, Feingold outlined his concerns with the Energy Policy Act:

Feingold, July 29, 2005: I have four fundamental concerns with regard to the energy conference report: It digs us deeper into a budget black hole, it fails to decrease our dependence on foreign oil, it rolls back important consumer protections, and it undermines some of the fundamental environmental laws our citizens rely upon.

Johnson’s ad also falsely claims that “Feingold was the only Great Lakes senator to vote no.” New York Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chuck Schumer, both Democrats, voted against the Energy Policy Act.

Although the state of New York borders Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, the Johnson campaign said in an e-mail to us that “many academic and government sources do not group New York in the Great Lakes Region.” The Johnson campaign defines the Great Lakes region as including Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota and Illinois. However, the Senate and the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan congressional investigative agency, have defined the term “Great Lakes States” as including Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. 

— by Kelsey Ferguson