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By Chris Opfer
June 24 — One of the Senate Republicans leading the long-shot charge against the Labor Department's new overtime rule is also facing a tough re-election battle back home.
He's also hearing about it from veteran Democratic lawmaker Russ Feingold, who's looking to unseat Johnson in a November rematch from six years ago.
“This is one piece of a larger landscape on labor issues,” a senior Feingold campaign official who spoke on condition of anonymity told Bloomberg BNA. “It hits right on our message on wages writ large.”
The overtime debate playing out in Wisconsin mirrors the one going on in the Capitol, where Republicans are scrambling to block the rule. It's one of a handful of worker-related policy disputes at the center of a tight race that could help determine whether Republicans retain control of the Senate next year.
“The overtime issue draws a pretty clear line in the sand,” Chris Reader, director of health and human resources policy at Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, told Bloomberg BNA. “It highlights the difference between the two candidates.”
Feingold leads Johnson by about four points among registered Wisconsin voters, according to a June 15 Marquette University poll.
Bloomberg BNA conducted interviews for this story from June 14 to 24.
The new rule, which goes into effect in December, has been hailed by supporters as a way to bolster paychecks in an era of stagnant wages.
It expands worker eligibility for overtime pay by more than doubling the threshold—up to about $47,500—below which employees are entitled to time-and-a-half pay for all hours worked beyond 40 each week.
Johnson, who ran a successful plastics manufacturing business before turning to politics, hits all of the high points already laid out by Republican lawmakers and the business community in criticizing the new rule.
They're concerned that the move will cause payrolls to skyrocket and eventually force employers—especially small businesses, academic institutions and nonprofit groups—to trim jobs and slash hours.
“It is uncertain whether the new rule from the Obama Administration will actually increase wages for workers,” Brian Reisinger, the Johnson campaign's communications director, told Bloomberg BNA via e-mail. “Regardless of the amount of the wage impact, the offsetting cost to employers will yield zero economic benefit.”
That's a slightly more complicated policy argument than the one that the rule's backers are making.
Feingold served in the Senate for 18 years before losing to Johnson in 2010. He and his colleagues are likely to hammer Republicans on the campaign trail, accusing them of trying to take extra money out of workers' pockets.
“Russ supports workers' fairness and wants to make sure that they are being paid for the hours they work,” Wisconsin AFL-CIO President Phillip Neuenfeldt told Bloomberg BNA.
In TV ads released earlier this month, Feingold slams Johnson for tax policy and trade stances that he says make it easier to ship jobs overseas. “We have a political system that's working overtime for CEOs,” Feingold says in one of the ads.
Meanwhile, Johnson's work against the overtime rule is getting a thumbs up from the business community in Wisconsin and nationwide. Still, many of his backers are expected to ramp up their support in the coming months to help maintain Republican control of the Senate.
Republicans currently hold a slim 54-member majority in the upper chamber. The Wisconsin race is one of 24 nationwide for Senate seats currently held by GOP members.
Eileen Braden, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's vice president for political affairs, told Bloomberg BNA the chamber is “all in for Ron Johnson.”
“Johnson comes from the free enterprise system and has a firsthand understanding of the devastating cost of government red tape,” Braden said. “Feingold, on the other hand, spent 18 years in Washington as part of the political class that pushed a ‘government knows best’ ideology on Wisconsin employers.”
The chamber has spent about $375,000 in support of Johnson during the current election cycle, according to figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. That figure is likely to go up significantly in the home stretch.
Business support is going to be crucial heading into the final months of the campaign, according to University of Wisconsin political science professor David Canon. “To the extent that the outside groups are targeting this race, that outside money could help Johnson quite a bit,” Canon told Bloomberg BNA.
Feingold's top donors so far include a political action committee backing a two-state solution to conflict in Israel, the League of Conservation Voters and the University of Wisconsin. It's safe to expect unions to start chipping in.
“We do know that we’ll be working hard for Russ,” the AFL-CIO's Neuenfeldt said. “We’ll be canvassing and talking to members and communicating with voters.”
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