When Democrats look at Ron Johnson, they can taste victory.
But that’s nothing new.
It was a miscalculation in 2010. And again in 2016. But 2022? Well, they’re pretty sure this time will be different.
Democrats might be right — but they also might not get a chance to find out if the Republican senator chooses to keep his 2016 pledge to make his second term his last.
Two things are true about the former plastics CEO. One, he’s the most vulnerable incumbent senator on the map in 2022, should he choose to seek reelection. And two, Democrats and Republicans have repeatedly underestimated him from the moment he stepped into the Wisconsin political arena a little more than a decade ago.
“I haven’t made that decision. I don’t feel any pressure to make it really anytime soon. I think I have plenty of time,” Johnson said when asked about his plans for 2022 during a Milwaukee Press Club Q&A last month.
Anyone besides Ron Johnson who says they know what he’ll do in 2022 is selling a bill of goods. Sources familiar with the senator’s thinking are just as uncertain about what he’ll decide as any other political observer. Johnson declined to be interviewed for this story, but offered a written statement commenting in particular on how his recent speech at the Republican Party of Wisconsin state convention would frame his future actions, regardless of whether he runs again.
At the heart of the speculation is a question that’s been posed to just about everyone who’s followed his career in Wisconsin, as he firmly embraces his role as a national political lightning rod: “Has he always been this way?”
Republican operatives who have worked with Johnson have a clear answer to that question: Johnson is the exact same person he’s always been. What’s changed are the issues earning his attention and the increasingly heated political environment.
“It’s not controversy for controversy’s sake. He’s not one to shy away from speaking his mind or taking positions that aren’t the establishment party line,” said Ben Voelkel, Johnson’s longtime communications director who left the senator’s office in April. “I think at some point you become an easy mark if you’re touching the hot stove. … He’s not deterred by that. He’s willing to stick his nose into places a lot of other people aren’t because of the consequences and blowback.”
Another Republican strategist who knows Johnson well argued that if the senator has changed, “that means every single person in the grassroots has changed.” Johnson “has always been that strongly conservative senator who is very much in line with the conservative base and who’s willing to say it, caution be damned,” the strategist said.
Several operatives familiar with Johnson or with Senate campaigns were granted anonymity for this story so they could speak candidly.
Johnson is doing what he’s always done, said one Republican consultant with knowledge of Senate races — he’s asking questions about things that don’t add up. The difference is that more people are paying attention, and no matter what he says, it will generate outrage among liberals and pundits, the consultant said.
The senator has fueled enough outrage to power a wildfire, especially in the last two years as the coronavirus spread, and former President Donald Trump encouraged false allegations about the legitimacy of the 2020 election.
Perhaps the best indication of how much the Johnson frenzy has grown is the spate of national headlines early in July revealing that he had recently mouthed that climate change is “bullshit” while speaking to a group of Republican women. While noteworthy amid a historic heat wave, the quip should come as no surprise to anyone who’s followed Johnson’s political career. He’s questioned the science of human-influenced climate change since at least 2010, instead blaming “sunspot activity or just something in the geologic eons of time” — charges that are uniformly dismissed by scientists.
Johnson’s controversial statements have evolved beyond climate, though, prompting comparisons to the disgraced late Sen. Joe McCarthy (of Appleton, just up the road from Oshkosh) from pundits and opponents.
The senator has cast doubts on the safety of COVID-19 vaccines and pushed unproven or debunked treatments for the virus. He has said he never felt threatened during the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol, and has disputed that the event was an armed insurrection. A recent New York Times story was headlined, “Assaulting the Truth, Ron Johnson Helps Erode Confidence in Government.”
It’s those instances that have some of his former supporters wondering where it all went wrong.
“Whether or not Johnson is joining the crowd or is revealing his true inner self, I’m now split on it,” said James Wigderson, editor of the conservative news site RightWisconsin. “Is it a case of Johnson moving where the audience is moving? There’s the old joke, ‘I must lead the people, and where the people go I must go first.’ Or is it a case of, this is the way Johnson always was, and when the issues changed and when circumstances changed, we got to see his true inner self?”
Wigderson then referred to a scene from “Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” during which telepathic humans hold a religious ritual to detonate a nuclear bomb, taking off their human-skinned masks to reveal their mutated faces underneath. Trump is the nuclear bomb in this analogy, if that wasn’t clear.
“As we got closer to the (2020) election … Johnson parroted the ‘stolen election’ lines, all the while claiming he doesn’t believe the election was stolen — but he certainly has done everything that he can to cast doubts on the legitimacy of the last election,” Wigderson said.
“If you have a standard, you hold yourself to it. The only standard Johnson seems to be holding himself to is that if it upsets the left, then he’s now in favor of it, regardless of how ridiculous he sounds in the process.”
Charlie Sykes, who for nearly a quarter-century was one of the state’s most influential conservative voices, says he believes Johnson has changed.
“I think the last (few) years changed and tested a lot of people,” Sykes said. “This may be a confession of naivete, but I did not have a sense that Ron Johnson was going to embrace the crazy. Perhaps I was obtuse or naive, but I did not expect that.”
The influence of Sykes — who left his WTMJ-AM talk radio show in 2016 as one of Wisconsin’s few anti-Trump conservatives and is now a frequent MSNBC contributor — was an integral part Johnson’s rise. A mutual friend connected the men, and Sykes ended up reading Johnson’s stump speech on air as he prepared to challenge Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold. Johnson was quoted in a 2011 Peggy Noonan column as saying, “The reason I’m a U.S. senator is because Charlie Sykes did that.”
The radio host and the senator used to have a weekly Monday morning phone call, Sykes said, recalling how impressed he was by Johnson’s independence. He wasn’t easily dazzled and wouldn’t be seduced by the Washington power structure. Sykes saw Johnson as a “Wall Street Journal editorial page conservative” — someone who could become the William Proxmire of the right.
But now it’s been about two years since the two have spoken, and Sykes can’t hide the disappointment in his voice when he talks about the senator.
Having already dubbed David Clarke his “Frankenstein monster” after serving as a launching pad and megaphone for the former Milwaukee County sheriff, how does Sykes feel about his role in Johnson’s rise?
“Let’s just say that — regrets, I have a few,” he said wryly, paraphrasing the Frank Sinatra song Trump played at his inaugural ball, his campaign rallies and his departure from the White House.
Given his distaste for political pageantry, Johnson’s ascension to the de facto head of the Wisconsin GOP was an unlikely one. But over the last several years, the other faces of the Republican “Cheesehead Revolution” — Paul Ryan, Scott Walker, Reince Priebus — faded from the stage, leaving Johnson to carry the mantle.
So it was Johnson’s speech — and not even a surprise video message from Trump — that took center stage during the Republican Party of Wisconsin’s state convention at the end of June.
In some ways, it was a tone shift for the gruff businessman, who’s usually more likely to present charts and graphs about the national debt than to get emotional or push for unity.
But in Wisconsin Dells, Johnson preached harmony and positivity in his speech to the base, painting Democrats as an angry party bent on fundamentally changing the United States.
"The leaders of the left talk about fundamentally transforming this nation. Do you even like, much less love, something you want to fundamentally transform?" Johnson asked. "America’s not perfect; we had that original sin from slavery, but we’ve made progress. We’ve continuously improved. That’s not good enough for the left."
He told supporters the Republican Party's mission statement should be "to unify, unite and heal this nation." And yes, that’s a callback to the pledges Democratic President Joe Biden made on the campaign trail — promises Johnson argues are not being fulfilled.
"We’re not going to do that by being angry. We’re not going to do that by imitating what (liberals) do, by being nasty," Johnson said. "We’re going to do that by allowing light to pierce the darkness."
In his speech, Johnson cited examples of recent confrontations as evidence that the left has grown angry, including a man who approached him on an airplane, got in his face and called him a "disgrace," and a woman who followed him through the Milwaukee airport making the same statement.
The senator also referenced Milwaukee's Juneteenth celebration, where he said he had a generally positive experience but was booed and shouted at by a small group of people as he spoke to the press. Johnson blocked legislation to make Juneteenth a national holiday last year, but backed off this year. Johnson said he supports the holiday itself, but questions why federal employees need another paid day off.
Johnson called on Republicans to run candidates at every level of public office, arguing that the GOP has spent too much time focused on federal elections while letting seats go at the local levels.
"Take back our school boards, our county boards, our city councils. We will take back our culture. We don't have to fear this anymore," Johnson said, advocating the concept of "trickle-up elections."
Johnson’s comments — which some critics said they believed were a cloaked reference to white supremacy — echoed the conclusion of Pat Buchanan’s “culture war” speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention: “My friends, we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.”
But Johnson closed his speech with a less political message, by encouraging both "random" and "extraordinary" acts of kindness. He focused in particular on two people’s stories: his former communications director, Voelkel; and Pastor Jerome Smith of Milwaukee, who died in April from complications of COVID-19.
Smith worked with Johnson to launch The Joseph Project — a faith-based initiative that seeks to train men and women, often with criminal backgrounds, and find them jobs with Wisconsin businesses. In a 2016 interview with the Cap Times, Smith said the Joseph Project has meant the difference between being able to buy a car, pay the utilities bill and put groceries on the table or not.
The pastor had been set to receive a kidney transplant in May. In his convention speech, Johnson shared that, after learning of Smith’s work, a relative of one of his staffers had donated a kidney to another patient in need. This came months after Voelkel himself received a kidney transplant, and several Johnson staffers were tested to see if they were a match. One of those staffers ultimately did give Voelkel a kidney — and several others ended up donating theirs to other patients.
“I want to leave you all thinking about the power of living a good life, of letting your light shine. Pastor Smith's light shone so bright that even in death, he saved other lives,” Johnson said.
Several people familiar with Johnson’s activities noted that the senator — whose estimated net worth is about $40 million — has been “incredibly generous, financially, in ways that he does not take credit for.” They shared several stories: Johnson paid for Smith’s funeral, and has seeded college funds for the children of people in his community whose parents are sidelined with health issues.
It all ties back to the Senate office’s mission statement, which is “to help people,” Voelkel said.
Referencing those acts of kindness, Johnson ended his convention speech by arguing that while the U.S. is not perfect, it can be "a phenomenal force for good."
"Our little democracy here, this marvel we call America, is but a blip in time. It’s kind of tiny, it’s kind of insignificant on that scale. But man, is it rare and is it ever precious," he said, alluding to the 1997 film "Contact." "So it’s just my belief that it is our solemn duty, having been given this gift, something this rare, something this precious, it’s our duty to make sure that it not only survives for our kids and grandkids and great-grandkids — that it thrives."
The heart of that message has been part of Johnson’s story for at least a decade. In a 2013 interview with The Atlas Society, the senator discussed his admiration for Ayn Rand, noting that he and Oshkosh businessman Ben Ganther had purchased an “Atlas Shrugged” statue together, commemorating the libertarian philosopher’s ode to small government and rugged individualism. Johnson chose the inscription: “Fight To Be Free.”
“I believe humanity has been in an ongoing struggle for freedom. And one of the reasons I ran is because I see those freedoms in America threatened,” Johnson said, discussing the phrase at the base of the statue. “I always call it the 236-year-old experiment, and that’s what we have here in this country. It’s something precious, and I’m concerned that we’re losing it.”
Johnson’s convention speech is in keeping with his message going forward — whether or not he seeks reelection — one GOP operative with knowledge of the senator’s thinking said.
“It’s us and our individual acts of kindness in our own communities, vs. the left’s radical agenda to basically remake America in their image using the heavy hand of government,” the operative said. “There’s maybe not a ‘kinder, gentler’ Ron Johnson — but there is a thoughtful, caring Ron Johnson that the left misses.”
Democrats dispute that characterization of Johnson and are champing at the bit to go toe-to-toe with the senator.
State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, one of several Democratic primary candidates for the Senate seat, says the senator is delivering “McCarthyism 2.0.” Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson says Johnson “lit the match and Donald Trump poured the gasoline on it” when he discusses the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry has said he launched his campaign because Johnson has been “peddling lies and conspiracies” and doesn’t represent the people of Wisconsin.
They’re joined in the field by state Sen. Chris Larson of Milwaukee, Wausau physician Gillian Battino, former state Senate candidate Adam Murphy and Milwaukee attorney Peter Peckarsky. Millennial Action Project founder Steven Olikara has launched an exploratory committee, and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes has made moves signaling he will join the race.
In their speeches and statements thus far, Democrats have set their sights on Johnson. Godlewski opened her campaign announcement with side-by-side images of herself and Johnson, introducing herself as “how do I put it nicely? — different” from the Republican senator.
“(My parents) taught me to work and tell the truth. Ron Johnson? Well, the truth really isn’t his thing,” Godlewski said in the video.
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Town of Vermont, politely describes Johnson as “quirky.”
“I kind of describe Ron as ‘Tea Party before Tea Party’ and ‘QAnon before QAnon.’ He’s who he is — he’s a very unique individual, but it’s not necessarily a useful path for someone in the Senate trying to get things done. We know he’s got his various white whales that he goes after on a regular basis. … It’s next to impossible to get him to change that worldview. But at least he’s consistent, I guess,” Pocan said, acknowledging the Midwestern inclination to tack a compliment onto criticism.
Pocan’s advice to Democrats vying for the seat is to train their barbs on Johnson, and not on each other — much as he encouraged Democrats in a crowded gubernatorial primary field to direct their fire at then-Gov. Scott Walker in 2018.
U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Milwaukee, recommended a different approach.
“We’ve got a very talented field of people on the Democratic side. But I think it’s really important to not veer their message totally toward beating the second coming of Donald Trump,” Moore said.
“That was a very close election, and if they get a nominee like Ron Johnson, then that’s one strategy, but if they get another candidate who is more center-right, it may be more difficult for a Democrat to run if they’re only going to run against not being the crazy person who was promoting conspiracy theories about the vaccine or denying climate change.”
Democrats need a nominee who can be a standard-bearer for the party’s priorities, and “not just someone who’s relying on a looney tune to run” so they can present themselves as the alternative, Moore said.
“I think they do want to run against him, because he’s a target,” Sykes said. “They can run against a lot of that baggage, as opposed to a clean ideological fight. There’s too much static — he brings too much static — not to mention the fact that he would be the ultimate motivator for big Democratic turnout.”
Some of Johnson’s conservative critics accuse him of falling into a feedback loop, seduced by the praise of the Republican echo chamber. But at the same time, Johnson allies argue those critics are the ones ensnared in a quest for relevance, enjoying the novelty of being a conservative bucking the more controversial elements of the GOP.
“Even though he has not yet announced that he is running, and I certainly hope he does, I am giving my Complete and Total Endorsement to Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin,” Trump said in a statement released in April. “He is brave, he is bold, he loves our Country, our Military, and our Vets. He will protect our Second Amendment, and everything else we stand for. It is the kind of courage we need in the U.S. Senate. He has no idea how popular he is. Run, Ron, Run!”
No one really knows how popular Johnson is, as it’s been a while since a nonpartisan public opinion poll was released in Wisconsin — and even the state’s most respected polls have run into challenges since the 2016 election. The most recent Marquette University Law School poll to measure public opinion on Johnson was in October 2020; 38% of voters viewed him favorably while 36% viewed him unfavorably, and 26% didn’t have an opinion or hadn’t heard enough to form one.
If he chooses to run, Johnson will be the only Republican incumbent defending a Senate seat in a state that Biden won in 2020.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that the odds would favor a Republican Senate candidate in Wisconsin. It’s a midterm election, and Democrats effectively control the White House and Congress, albeit with the tightest of margins. Being a two-term incumbent who trounced one of the state’s progressive folk heroes not once, but twice in a row, doesn’t hurt, either.
“It’s the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard,” one Republican consultant said of Democrats hoping to run against Johnson rather than another GOP candidate. Republican operatives acknowledged that Johnson is likely an effective fundraising foil for Democrats, though.
If Johnson doesn’t run, potential contenders include U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher, Marine veteran and former U.S. Senate candidate Kevin Nicholson and former U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy.
“I think whether it’s Ron Johnson or someone else, the Republicans are in a really precarious situation,” said Democratic Party of Wisconsin spokesman Philip Shulman. “Either he’s vulnerable or he’s going to be leaving a very short and very messy primary for whichever Republicans decide to run.”
Sabato's Crystal Ball, at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, currently lists Wisconsin and North Carolina as “leans Republican” states in the 2022 election, while Pennsylvania is listed as a toss-up — although managing editor Kyle Kondik said those ratings are splitting hairs given how close the races in all three states are expected to be.
“Usually you’d rather run (against) an open seat than an incumbent, but my guess is that when it’s all said and done, there probably wouldn’t be that much of a difference between how Johnson does and another Republican, unless that Republican was a really terrible substitute candidate,” Kondik said.
The built-in incumbent advantage isn’t as strong as it was a few decades ago, Kondik said, because voters are now less inclined to split their tickets and more inclined to rely on party ID when they cast their ballots.
Still, Kondik said, while Johnson is a lightning rod, he also defeated Feingold twice, and shouldn’t be underestimated.
Pocan argued, however, that Johnson’s 2016 victory wasn’t solely a result of GOP efforts: “Thanks to Hillary Clinton writing off Wisconsin, (we had) a 200,000-plus Democratic voter dropoff, and that’s what killed us. It wasn’t that Ron had this underground, wide support. We didn’t have a presidential campaign in Wisconsin giving us resources that bring out voters.”
“You can’t underestimate Johnson. He will find the money and the resources necessary to run an effective campaign,” Wigderson said. “You can’t discount how short memories are for the general public, especially in this day and age, and you can’t discount the effects of incumbency. He immediately commands attention with whatever he does, and then finally, there’s the factor that he’s running in a year that the Democrats occupy the White House.”
Other Republican operatives aren’t worried about whether memories are short or long, though. Johnson’s comments may rankle the left and even some in the middle and to the right, but most swing voters aren’t bothered by an elected official who speaks his mind, they argue.
“One of his greatest strengths is … what you see is what you get. He is not somebody who is doing one thing for the cameras and then doing something else behind the scenes,” Voelkel said.
“Candor,” “authenticity” and “grit” are frequently listed by GOP operatives as the senator’s strongest qualities.
Like Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the Cook Political Report currently classifies the seat as one that “leans Republican.” At the same time, “Johnson is the most vulnerable Republican incumbent if he decides to run again,” said Jessica Taylor, the Senate analyst for the nonpartisan election forecaster, adding that “Wisconsin may be one of the most evenly divided states in the country.”
“Over the past year, some of the ways that he’s positioned himself … are certainly head-scratching for someone who’s running in such a closely divided state. This has all given Democrats a lot of fodder,” Taylor said. “Certainly his comments about Jan. 6 that really fly in the face of facts, when there’s concrete evidence … that this was a very violent and destructive scene that happened, an attack on the very seat of democracy. The comments he’s made trying to downplay that, I think, could be some of the most damaging.”
However, Taylor said, Johnson’s track record means he shouldn’t be counted out.
“I ran in 2010 because I was panicked for this nation,” Johnson said in a statement provided for this story. “With our national debt exceeding $28 trillion and the radical left agenda being imposed by Democrats in Washington, I’m even more concerned. Nothing the Biden administration or political actors on the left are doing will heal or unify our nation. In my speech to the Republican Party of Wisconsin convention in June, I proposed that our mission statement should recognize how precious America is and provide the leadership that will actually begin the healing process that most Americans desire.”
In his 2013 interview with The Atlas Society, Johnson said he did not identify as much with the hero of “Atlas Shrugged,” John Galt, as much as he did with Hank Rearden — the self-made steel magnate who, in Johnson’s words, “refuse(s) until the very end to give up.”
“I guess I like to think of myself as more of a Hank Rearden. I’m not going to give up. America is something far, far too precious in the span of human history. … I’ll never give up hope on America,” Johnson said.
Rand described Rearden this way: “This was the simple essence of his universe: the instantaneous refusal to submit to disaster, the irresistible drive to fight it, the triumphant feeling of his own ability to win.”
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