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By Cary Spivak September 3, 2010

Russ Feingold says Ron Johnson "is willing to hand over the Great Lakes to the oil companies"

As in the Gulf of Mexico, oil just won’t disappear from the U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin.

It’s a central part of an ad by U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, a Democrat locked in a tough re-election battle. Not only does the ad argue that Republican Ron Johnson wants to drill for oil in the Great Lakes, it says he’s "willing to hand over the Great Lakes to the oil companies."

For lake-loving Wisconsinites, the issue hits home.

The charge goes back to a statement that bubbled up when Johnson sat down for a wide-ranging interview with Johnson, an Oshkosh businessman, was asked this question:

"Would you support more drilling in the U.S., continental, Great Lakes for example, if there was oil found there, and more exploration in Alaska, those kind of things?"

Johnson’s answer: "The bottom line is, 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 we have to be realistic and recognize that fact. We have to get the oil where it is, but we need to do it responsibly, we need to utilize American ingenuity and American technology to make sure we to do it environmentally sensitively and safely."

That’s where it began.

This is where it wound up:

The Feingold campaign issued a news release June 18 that said, "when asked if he would support drilling in the Great Lakes, Johnson said: ‘I think we have to get the oil where it is.’ " The release prompted some chatter in the blogosphere, though the issue remained low on the public radar screen.

And the Johnson campaign remained silent.

Then came Feingold’s TV ad. It showed a map of the United States and graphically transplanted the BP oil spill from the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Michigan shores. Meanwhile, Feingold is heard saying Johnson is "willing to hand over the Great Lakes to the oil companies, threatening Wisconsin’s economy and a way of life for generations of Wisconsin families."

To hear Feingold, one would think BP was ready to plop an oil rig just off the Summerfest grounds. So, we figured it was time for us to do a little drilling of our own to see if Feingold  hit the mark.

There is little doubt Johnson, a BP shareholder, has a "Drill, baby, drill" attitude. On Oct. 10, 2009 -- before he was a candidate -- Johnson told a tea party gathering in Oshkosh: "I want oil companies to make enough money to continue to explore, drill, refine, and deliver gas to virtually every corner of America."

That would presumably include the Great Lakes.

But Johnson’s campaign issued a statement July 12, four weeks after the interview, that left no wiggle room. It said: "I would reject any and all efforts to drill in the Great Lakes."

That statement was issued at 3:49 p.m., the day before the Feingold ad was launched. John Kraus, senior strategist for Feingold’s campaign, said the Johnson statement was issued about an hour after the Feingold campaign made its TV buy.

Coincidence, or was Johnson tipped off about the Feingold ad? You decide.

Johnson quickly launched his own response ad, which said in part: "Ron Johnson opposes drilling in the Great Lakes and Russ Feingold knows it." And Johnson and his campaign later argued there’s not enough oil in the lake to make drilling worthwhile and that it was too cold to do much drilling here anyway. Finally, six weeks after his initial response Johnson said he may have not heard "Great Lakes" included in the question.

In other words, it’s kind of a gooey mess.

Let’s clean it all up.

Feingold took an off-the-cuff statement by Johnson -- albeit one Johnson had a month to correct -- and made it the centerpiece of a TV ad that launched the day after Johnson had re-framed his views.   

Johnson has noted his support for more oil exploration. But the ad made a flat hand-the-lakes-over statement, ignoring Johnson’s expressed concerns for the environment. That’s not handing the lakes over to Big Oil. It was produced based on the original Johnson statement, but the ad remained on the air long after Johnson clearly said no to Great Lakes drilling. And Feingold is continuing to state on the campaign trail: "It’s kind of reasonable to think that if (Johnson) had a chance to vote for drilling the Great Lakes, he’d be first in line."

Featured Fact-check

We rate Feingold’s claim Barely True.

Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.

Our Sources, Ron Johnson interview, and story about interview, posted June 4, 2010.

Feingold Senate Committee, press release,  "Getting the Job Done for Wisconsin," June 18, 2010

Feingold TV commercial "Just Say No," aired beginning July 13, 2010

Don Pridemore for Assembly website:  Ron Johnson tea party speech of Oct. 10, 2009, posted May 21, 2010

Johnson campaign; Statement on Drilling the Great Lakes, July 12, 2010

Ron Johnson for Senate, TV ad, "Feingold Mud," aired beginning July 14, 2010

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel  "Feingold, Johnson spar over oil drilling" July 15, 2010  Ron Johnson campaign ad blasts Russ Feingold for record on Great Lakes oil drilling; July 19, 2010

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "Johnson criticizes health reform law" July 25, 2010

Interviews with John Kraus, senior strategist for Feingold campaign, week of Aug. 16, 2010

Interviews with Justin Johnson, campaign manager for Johnson campaign, week of Aug. 16, 2010

Milwaukee Press Club Newsmaker Luncheon, Aug. 26, 2010

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Cary Spivak

Russ Feingold says Ron Johnson "is willing to hand over the Great Lakes to the oil companies"

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