MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson stuck by Donald Trump in a debate Friday without actually saying the presidential candidate’s name.
Referring to Trump as “our Republican nominee,” Johnson said he supports him on a number of issues, including securing the border and fighting the Islamic state, but that he would not “defend the indefensible.”
Johnson’s Democratic opponent, former Sen. Russ Feingold, challenged Johnson to renounce Trump, who’s been battered by accusations of sexual misbehavior. Trump has denied the allegations.
“This one of those times where you have to be an American first, not a politician running for office,” Feingold said in the debate.
The race for president has cast a shadow over Wisconsin’s Senate race, as Johnson said he supports but does not endorse Trump. He’s also spoken out against Trump on a number of issues, most recently denouncing his crude comments about women. Johnson has also not campaigned with Trump in Wisconsin and planned to skip an upcoming rally Trump had planned for Monday in Green Bay, the same city where Friday’s debate was taking place.
“I’ve not been shy in with disagreeing with our candidate, with our nominee. I’m not going to defend the indefensible.” Johnson said during the debate.
Feingold said it is “completely irresponsible” to support Trump for president and “no one should really do it after seeing the fact he’s simply not qualified to be president.”
Feingold challenged Johnson to follow the lead of other Republican senators in tough re-election fights, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, in not supporting Trump.
“I think it will be very frightening for the rest of the world if we elect Donald Trump,” Feingold said.
Feingold supports Democrat Hillary Clinton, and he’s curried favor with the more liberal wing of the party by campaigning with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren this month.
Feingold and Johnson are familiar debate opponents: They squared off three times in 2010, a race Johnson won, ending Feingold’s 18-year run in the Senate.
Democrats see Johnson as vulnerable given that he’s running for re-election in a presidential election year when Democratic turnout in Wisconsin is strong. A Marquette University Law School poll released this week showed the race to be about even.
In Friday’s debate, Johnson attacked Feingold’s record in the Senate, where the Democrat supported President Barack Obama’s health care law and cast the lone vote against the Patriot Act.
Feingold has campaigned on raising the minimum wage, allowing college students to refinance student loan debt and opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal. He’s tried to cast Johnson, who emphasizes his background helping to start and build the plastics manufacturing company Pacur, as out of touch with the concerns of middle-income voters.
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