Updated 9:25 p.m. Tuesday.
CHAMPAIGN — Retiring U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Urbana, is urging the Republican and Democratic candidates seeking to succeed him to "cease and desist" their negative television advertising.
And the six-term congressman again declined to endorse any of the three candidates in the 13th Congressional District race, including Republican Rodney Davis of Taylorville.
"That's not why I'm here today," Johnson said. "I can tell you this, it would be difficult for me to endorse somebody with the tone that's been set here. It flies in the face of everything I've stood for."
Nearly $1.8 million has been spent so far in the 13th District race by so-called "independent" groups or superPACs, either against Davis or Democrat David Gill. The biggest "independent" spender has been the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has put more than half a million dollars into attack ads targeting Davis. But the National Republican Congressional Committee and three other groups have run negative ads targeting Gill.
"The 13th District in Illinois has become in many ways a cesspool for negativity," Johnson said Tuesday at his congressional office in Champaign. "I gave up this seat because of family circumstances, I don't in any way regret my decision. But I do regret the level to which this campaign has descended."
Johnson released letters he had sent last week to Gill, Davis, the DCCC and the NRCC, asking them to "stop funding the negative ad campaign" in the district.
"This is your race," he wrote in identical letters to Gill and Davis. "I believe you should demand a cease-fire and make it known that you have made such a demand. It is in your best interests as well as the best interests of the body politic."
The Davis campaign responded to Johnson's request by releasing a statement from former U.S. Rep. Tom Ewing, a Pontiac Republican who preceded Johnson in Congress. Ewing's son, Sam, also opposed Johnson in the 2000 Republican primary in the 15th District.
"I am proud of the way Rodney has conducted himself during an onslaught of false and negative ads, and I applaud him for continuing to talk about the many issues where he and Mr. Gill disagree. I believe it is vital for voters to understand the differences between Rodney Davis and David Gill on the issues," Ewing said.
There was no response to Johnson's request from Davis himself.
Gill responded to Johnson's letter with his own 10-paragraph letter saying that he too "was disappointed by the negative tone of these Super PACs."
But he did not pledge to halt the negative ads.
"Friends of David Gill has not aired a negative TV commercial or radio commercial so far in this race. I would prefer it if the DCCC, the NRCC, the American Action Network, the US Chamber of Commerce, the New Prosperity Foundation, and the Rodney Davis for Congress campaign hadn't chosen to immediately take that approach either," Gill wrote. "While I can express my disappointment with this negativity and hope these groups follow my lead, I have no control over the decisions of the DCCC or any other third party group."
Johnson said many of his constituents — he said he still speaks by telephone to about 200 people in his congressional district every day — asked him to speak out against the negative ads.
"I think I still have a right to reflect what my constituents say. My constituents — Republican, Democrat, Gill and Davis, liberal and conservative — all say this is bad stuff and you've got to change it. It hurts the process. It hurts the image. And it hurts the product," Johnson said.
"The half-truths, the outright lies, the attacks on your opponent have just reached a level where it's just unconscionable, and I didn't feel in good conscience that I could sit back and allow that to maintain itself," he said.
Johnson admitted "I'm hardly Simon pure but I certainly have not conducted myself this way," and said he felt an obligation to get involved in the race.
"If good people sit back and do nothing when evil is happening in the system, then I'm just as guilty as they are. So my hope is that as a result of today people are going to listen. I can't affect somebody in Indiana. Maybe I can't affect anybody in Illinois. But at least I'm going to send a message," he said.
Johnson, a co-founder of the Center Aisle Caucus in Congress, which advocates for civility and compromise, urged Davis and Gill to embrace a less-partisan tone in their campaigns.
"I think they're both honorable people who really want to do the right thing. But if they really want to do the right thing in the campaign, they're going to do it now and I think whoever is elected, that will carry over in their (congressional) service. If they can do it right now, they can also interact and work together with their colleagues once they're elected."
Gill, in a recent interview, maintained that he had no control over the ads produced and paid for by the DCCC. But Johnson dismissed the notion that the candidates couldn't tell the Washington-based partisan groups to stop the ads.
"I don't believe for one minute, my 8-year-old grandson wouldn't believe for one minute, that if David Gill and Rodney Davis were to say, as I hope they do, let's stop the negativity, let's stop the mudslinging, that the DCCC and the NRCC and the various superPACs are not going to listen to their candidate. That is just not believable," he said. "That is absurd to suggest that for one minute."
He said the sniping between Gill and Davis could end up benefiting independent candidate John Hartman of Edwardsville, who hasn't run any ads, let alone negative ones.
"I'm suggesting that when the two major parties engage in this kind of conflict, that the independent will inevitably benefit from it," he said.
If he were running for re-election, Johnson said, "It wouldn't have happened from me. I can guarantee you that had I run I would have done the same thing that I did for the last 44 years and, quite frankly, what I did a little of in the primary this year. I don't conduct myself in that manner. I don't engage in mudslinging."
He also urged voters to speak out against the negative campaigning.
"And the way it will not work is if constituents say, 'Enough is enough. I'm not going to support people who run negative ads. I'm not going to support people who attack their opponent. I'm not going to support people who engage in mud-slinging.'"
Johnson also said he believed the three candidates should debate more than once.
"I would like to see debates earlier in the process than on November first," he said of the debate at WILL-TV in Urbana.
If the presidential and vice presidential candidates can agree to four debates, Johnson said, "I would think that two or three people for Congress who only had to cover a fraction of one state could agree to more than one debate."