MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson is defending his discussion of the vote taken by passengers aboard the hijacked United Flight 93 on 9/11 in the context of the upcoming November election, calling those who have criticized him over his remarks "political hacks."
Johnson, a Republican, is in a tough re-election campaign with Democrat Russ Feingold. The seat is one of the most hotly contested in the country and could determine which party controls the Senate.
At the Wisconsin Republican Party convention on Saturday, Johnson told the story of how passengers on Flight 93 voted to rush the cockpit to confront the hijackers, resulting in the plane plunging into a Pennsylvania field.
"The reason I like telling that story now as we head into the election season is we all know what we need to do," Johnson said. "November 2016 we'll be taking a vote. We'll be encouraging our fellow citizens to take a vote. Now, it may not be life and death, like the vote passengers on United Flight 93 took, but boy is it consequential."
Democrats pounced on the comments, with Feingold's campaign saying it's "beyond bad taste for a sitting senator to compare a horrific national tragedy — one that united all Americans — to his own partisan re-election." The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee demanded that Johnson apologize.
Instead of apologizing, Johnson defended himself in a series of interviews on Sunday and Monday.
He told 1380-AM in Janesville, Wisconsin, on Sunday that he "absolutely" was not comparing his campaign with the heroics of the Flight 93 passengers. He called that a "ridiculous charge" and said the Feingold campaign was making a "political hack attack" with its criticism.
"I'm just comparing, basically, their actions they took in terms of heroism, and I'm just trying to make sure that we all understand that what's at stake in this election is very, very consequential," he said.
Feingold spokesman Michael Tyler responded Monday by saying, "We didn't write Sen. Johnson's prepared remarks for his convention speech. But we do think they were in poor taste."
Johnson also sought to explain his support of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, saying he has not endorsed him. Earlier this month, the Eau Claire Leader Telegram reported Johnson as saying, "I am going to certainly endorse the Republican nominee, and obviously it looks like that will be Mr. Trump."
"Let me tell you precisely what I've said," Johnson told 1380-AM on Sunday. "I intend to support the Republican nominee. That's what I've said. I intend to support the Republican nominee. ... To me, support versus endorse are two totally different things."
Johnson also told the radio station that he could withdraw his support for Trump at any point.
"Any individual that would be running for office, if they would say something that crosses a line, and in the end is so significant, so major that you couldn't support them, I'd have to withdraw support from any individual, OK?" Johnson said.
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