Ron Johnson 5/18/2019

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, told reporters Saturday at the Wisconsin Republican Party's annual convention that former Vice President Joe Biden poses the biggest threat to Republican President Donald Trump.

OSHKOSH — At an annual convention where Republicans fumed against the growing threat of socialism and “wacky” ideas from the left, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson said Democratic presidential contender and former Vice President Joe Biden is the biggest threat to a Republican victory in Wisconsin next year.

“He’s a likable guy,” Johnson told reporters here Saturday. “I think he’s developed a fair amount of positive political capital, but at the same time, he’s also been wrong policy-wise on so many foreign policy as well as domestic policy issues.”

Johnson, R-Oshkosh, made the comments as about 650 of the party faithful gathered to move past their 2018 statewide losses and gear up to defend President Donald Trump in his 2020 re-election bid.

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Johnson, who is a manufacturer, said his belief Biden is the top Democratic presidential candidate is “obvious” given his name recognition and personality akin to a sales manager but said he’ll be proud to compare Trump’s agenda against that of former President Barack Obama and Biden, especially given growth in business investment.

The annual convention comes less than a week after the release of the party’s self-assessment showing the state GOP in 2018 spent vastly beyond its means, relied too heavily on consultants and failed to connect with the party’s grassroots activists and volunteers.

Abortion stance

The convention also comes on the heels of Republicans in a handful of states passing highly restrictive abortion bans, such as in Alabama, where Gov. Kay Ivey signed a law making it a felony in nearly all cases to perform an abortion. Meanwhile, Wisconsin Republicans in the state Assembly earlier this week approved a slate of bills to restrict abortion.

One of the measures, coined the “born-alive” bill, would make “intentionally causing the death of a child born alive as a result of an abortion or an attempted abortion” a felony with a penalty of life imprisonment — the same penalty as first-degree intentional homicide.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said the Senate would take up the legislation in June, and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers previously said he’d veto it.

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Johnson told reporters on Saturday he is opposed to laws as restrictive as Alabama’s, and said he is skeptical of “fetal heartbeat” laws that ban abortions as early as the sixth week of pregnancy.

“That’s pretty early in the process,” Johnson said.

Johnson, however, said he regrets the U.S. Supreme’s Court’s landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that affirmed the legality of a woman’s right to have an abortion.

He said he would have preferred each state to make its own rules on abortion and said the fallout from such a scenario — a patchwork of abortion laws across the U.S. — is preferable to the current framework.

“I think we’d protect life in the womb of the mother far earlier than we do now,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he supports a federal bill that would ban abortion after about 20 weeks after fertilization.

Gearing up for 2020

On Saturday, party leaders were looking to drum up support for Trump ahead of 2020, something they’ll need to do among women and other demographic groups Republicans had trouble with during the 2018 midterms.

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Republican members of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation warned against what they see as the rising tide of socialism and urged their supporters to take a message of economic opportunity to demographic groups that don’t hear it as often, such as those in the African American community.

“Conservative ideas help all of us,” said first-term U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil, R-Janesville. “We’re fighting for people to live out a life of the American dream.”

U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wausau, urged Republicans and supporters of Trump to drum up support for the president among their own social circles to combat the threat of socialism, which Duffy said could lead the U.S. down the road of a country like Venezuela, which has suffered economic collapse in recent years.

“If we go by the way of Venezuela, there is no America to save us,” Duffy said.

Duffy’s comments were accompanied by those of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who railed against Evers’ Democratic proposals as “wacky” ideas pedaled by those in Dane County.

Vos complained Evers “is not learning from his predecessors,” former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle and former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, who Vos said worked with Legislatures controlled by the opposing party.

Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said Republicans are ignoring the will of the people of Wisconsin.

“Only a party in complete disarray would attack investments in special education funding, mental health and substance use disorder treatment, and lead poisoning prevention and treatment as ‘wacky’ and ‘crazy,’” Baldauff said in a statement.

Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Glenbeulah, said highlighting what the GOP views as extreme rhetoric on the left will be a theme to carry them through next year’s presidential election. Democratic stances to highlight, he said, include those on border security and gun control.

“Every day one of their 23 (presidential) candidates is selling something crazy,” Grothman said.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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Capitol reporter

Riley Vetterkind covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal. He can be reached at (608) 252-6135 or rvetterkind@madison.com.