This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal

Talk to Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin about his party's new majority in the next Congress and the phrase you'll hear the most is "common ground." While some GOP colleagues mull what they can do in spite of a slim majority and a Democratic president, Johnson's focus now, he says, is on what they can accomplish together.

For a man who was elected during the tea-party wave of 2010 on a platform of drastically reducing federal spending and overturning the Affordable Care Act, Johnson's tone is notable. He says he is no longer looking to repeal the health care law. He is pushing back hard against conservative voices calling for a shutdown over the president's immigration policy. He's touted his work with Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin to confirm Wisconsin judicial nominees. And in discussing his pending committee chairmanship, he points to Sen. Susan Collins and former independent Sen. Joe Lieberman as models of how he'd like to run the panel. Those aren't exactly the moves one would expect from a senator who is often lumped in ideologically with Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee.

So what exactly is going on with Ron Johnson?

Johnson is one of half a dozen Republicans running in blue and purple states in 2016, all of whom were last elected in a midterm cycle, when voter turnout is typically much lower (and much more favorable to Republicans) than in a presidential year. All will have to work to appeal to independent and Democratic voters in their states.

Given the political environment in Wisconsin, Johnson could be the most vulnerable of the group. In 2016, Johnson will face an electorate that has voted Democratic in the last seven presidential cycles.

In an interview in his Senate office this week, Johnson said that despite that landscape, he hasn't changed. He promised voters in 2010 that he would not alter his votes or actions in order to keep his seat and, he says, he's kept to that promise. He says he has always been a moderate, dismissing the idea that he was ever truly a member of the tea party.

"I sprang out of the tea-party movement, no question," he said. "I gave a speech to the tea party, I gave a speech to two tea parties. But notice I've never joined any kind of tea-party caucus or tea-party group. I don't disassociate myself from that movement. I mean, 'taxed enough already'—I think we are taxed enough already.... So, you know, I don't run away from the movement. But I don't want to be classified as what I think some tea-party leaders might be classified as."

Asked to elaborate, Johnson pointed to the effort by some of his colleagues this year to defund the Affordable Care Act. During meetings with other Republican members, Johnson raised his hand and questioned whether his colleagues were really looking at the reality of the situation. "There's no way you could defund Obamacare with President Obama in the White House and Democrats controlling the Senate, so, my point being: Why set yourself up for failure? You have to look at achievable goals," he said.

"I gave a speech to the tea party, I gave a speech to two tea parties. But notice I've never joined any kind of tea party caucus or tea party group."

GETTING BACK TO REALITY

Strategist Brad Todd, who worked on Johnson's 2010 campaign, said in an interview that Johnson's "independent streak was always his calling card" and was a major focus of the campaign's television advertising. Johnson ousted Sen. Russ Feingold that year by arguing that the centrist Democrat had run too far to the left.

"He's a populist in the party of sort of real America," Todd said of Johnson.

And Johnson would like to get back to "real America" eventually, Todd said, though he emphasized that he had not discussed any retirement plans with the senator. But the way the Senate has operated over his last four years in office has clearly frustrated Johnson. And he's hopeful that by working with Democrats over the next two years, they can turn the upper chamber around.

"I mean, put yourself in my position. I actually like my life back in Oshkosh. And [in my first] four years, I wanted to solve problems. I wanted to get our economy moving. I wanted to get some level of control over our debt and deficit. I haven't been able to do any of that in four years," Johnson says. "I'd like to get to work. And I've got to believe that Democratic senators would like to do the same thing."

Reality is what guides Johnson, a former accountant who had not held any political office before winning his 2010 campaign. He travels the state with PowerPoint presentations, offering concrete examples and facts to back up his claims, in the style of fellow Wisconsinite Rep. Paul Ryan.

And the political reality in Washington changed this fall—but not by much. With any issue, Johnson relies on his business experience—beginning with defining the problem and finding an achievable solution, he says. Having a Republican majority in the Senate helps to broaden the scope of what is achievable, but Johnson acknowledges that with a Democrat in the White House, there are still impediments to his party's goals.

Johnson's acceptance of political reality can be a double-edged sword. The Republican says that he no longer believes that the Affordable Care Act can be "repealed and replaced," to use what he calls a "nice, neat little slogan" from some of his Republican colleagues. Once Americans started signing up for health care under the law, it became too late to truly pull it out "root and branch," as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell likes to say.

That could present problems for Johnson's base, who elected him in part to do just that. But Johnson says he has a message for them. "Unfortunately, America reelected President Obama and our best chance of actually repealing it was when it was just a piece of a paper and it could just go away," he says, noting that millions are already "addicted to the subsidy."

Ron Johnson says that he no longer believes that the Affordable Care Act can be "repealed and replaced."

Some of his supporters may not like that answer. But if there is one thing Johnson is offering voters, he says, it's honesty. And based on the backlash Democrats faced in 2014 over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and the choruses of "If you like your plan, you can keep it," Johnson believes that is what voters are looking for.

"I think they're looking for the truth. That's what I try to deliver. That's what I'm dedicated to delivering. So, I'm hoping that that will be rewarded," he says.

That's Johnson's biggest selling point, Todd said. "Ron's as straight as a shot of uncut whiskey," he said. "He's going to level with the voter, which is something a lot of people in politics don't do."

But the fight over the Affordable Care Act isn't entirely over, Johnson says. He, like many of his Republican colleagues, has pointed to provisions of the law that have bipartisan opposition, including the medical-device tax and the 30-hour work week. Johnson noted that Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken of neighboring Minnesota both supported repealing the medical-device tax, and he's hopeful that he can work with them do so next year.

Johnson has used the tax as a central argument for hope for bipartisan cooperation in the next Congress, while rarely mentioning the fact that the plastics company he co-owns with his brother-in-law, PACUR, creates packaging for medical devices. Johnson argues that his work with device manufacturers gives him greater knowledge of the industry than many of his colleagues, but dismissed the idea that he could profit from a repeal of the tax. "You could argue, maybe, there'll be a few more dollars sales—but we've got a pretty specialized product. The customers we already have, I don't know how they'd be affected dramatically one way or the other," he said. "This has nothing to do with personal interests one way or the other."

He is also hopeful that he can work with Democrats to pass tax reform and to identify regulations that both sides agree need to be altered or eliminated altogether. "But if we can't, I mean I'm happy to take a rifle shot approach and go, 'OK, Democratic senators, there have got to be some regulations that you think have gone beyond the pale or we've reached the point of diminishing returns and we're just burdening businesses in your state,' " he says.

Johnson said he will make a conscious effort to find Democratic partners on legislation in the next Congress, avoiding the floor fights over partisan bills that have characterized the Senate over the last four years. And he takes McConnell at his word that the Republican majority will provide an open amendment process and give power back to the committees to help move bipartisan, negotiated legislation through the Congress.

THE NEW CHAIRMAN

The first test for Johnson will be as head of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee next year, where he will be the sole member of the class of 2010 running a Senate panel. Johnson vowed to work closely with Democrats, who will be led by ranking member Tom Carper of Delaware.

"I'm going to approach it the way I always approach any business negotiation," Johnson said. "Instead of arguing right off the bat, you start in this negotiation spending a lot of time figuring out the things you agreed on. That helped develop a relationship, a level of trust, and when we finally came to any areas of disagreement or contrast it's a whole lot easier to find common ground."

Asked about his relationship with Johnson, Carper mentioned that he had a roommate in the Navy by the same name. "So I start off with a good feeling," Carper joked.

But, the Democrat added, it takes a long time for a new chairman and ranking member to get on the same page. He noted that he and current ranking member Tom Coburn, who is retiring this year, worked together for eight years on a Homeland Security subcommittee and still needed a year of working together at the top of the full committee to truly "have the trust and confidence of a team."

"It's like a marriage," Carper said. "I think the three most important ingredients to the relationship that Tom Coburn and I have developed [are] the three C's: Communicate, compromise and collaborate."¦ So we'll work at it. I'll work at it hard, I'm sure [Johnson] will too. And hopefully at the end of the day we'll end up with as strong and productive a relationship as I've had with Tom Coburn all these years."

Johnson plans to begin his work as chairman by passing a border-security bill, one that he hopes will attract Democratic support. Rather than focusing on adding additional guards at the border, or building a fence—ideas he dismisses as insufficient—Johnson says that Congress needs to focus on the root of the problem: immigrants coming to the U.S. illegally for work.

So Johnson has begun circulating an early outline of legislation that would include a guest-worker program to disincentivize illegal immigration for job opportunities. The number of workers allowed into each state and the prevailing wage for those workers will be left up to the states.

Once that is done, Johnson says, Congress can get about the work of what to do with the illegal immigrants who are already living in the U.S. "As long as people, immigrants are here, working for their community, not committing crimes, not feeding off the welfare system, the reality of the situation is, I don't think those people will be deported," Johnson said.

Asked if he was indicating his support for the president's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Johnson said: "Yeah, after you secure the border."

Whether he can pass that legislation with just a 53- or 54-seat Republican majority remains to be seen. But Johnson is hopeful that he can attract Democratic votes through an open-amendment process, pointing to the leadership of Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, the No. 4 Democratic leader, as an example.

Last year, Murray led members through an hours-long amendment process, allowing debate between members of both parties. "We sat across the table like this," he said, gesturing a few feet across his desk. "So you had Democrats there, Republicans here, offering amendment after amendment and we discussed them. Bernie Sanders was coming across the table, saying, 'Take a look at this information.' OK, I'm willing to take a look at different facts, if you don't think I'm quite getting it right. That begins that relationship. You start hearing the other person's viewpoint," he said.

The losses of so many red-state Democrats in 2014 leave Republicans with fewer obvious Democratic partners for the next Congress, but Johnson said he isn't worried, vowing to work with any Democrat, regardless of their ideological interests to push legislation forward.

Those Democratic losses came in a mirror-image electoral map from the one Johnson and his blue-state colleagues will face in 2016. Asked if he learned anything from red state Democrats, all of whom (with the possible exception of Sen. Mary Landrieu in Louisiana) lost reelection this year, Johnson said chuckling: "Don't be a Democrat. I think Democrats just pretty well ignored the American public. I really think they did. I don't think we're ignoring them."

Johnson fully acknowledges that his reelection is dependent on the performance of this new Republican majority and whether they are, in fact, able to get the Senate working.

"I really do believe Americans, and Wisconsinites ... will be pleasantly surprised to find out the Republican Party is not the party of no," Johnson said.

GETTING BACK TO REALITY

Strategist Brad Todd, who worked on Johnson's 2010 campaign, said in an interview that Johnson's "independent streak was always his calling card" and was a major focus of the campaign's television advertising. Johnson ousted Sen. Russ Feingold that year by arguing that the centrist Democrat had run too far to the left.

"He's a populist in the party of sort of real America," Todd said of Johnson.

And Johnson would like to get back to "real America" eventually, Todd said, though he emphasized that he had not discussed any retirement plans with the senator. But the way the Senate has operated over his last four years in office has clearly frustrated Johnson. And he's hopeful that by working with Democrats over the next two years, they can turn the upper chamber around.

"I mean, put yourself in my position. I actually like my life back in Oshkosh. And [in my first] four years, I wanted to solve problems. I wanted to get our economy moving. I wanted to get some level of control over our debt and deficit. I haven't been able to do any of that in four years," Johnson says. "I'd like to get to work. And I've got to believe that Democratic senators would like to do the same thing."

Reality is what guides Johnson, a former accountant who had not held any political office before winning his 2010 campaign. He travels the state with PowerPoint presentations, offering concrete examples and facts to back up his claims, in the style of fellow Wisconsinite Rep. Paul Ryan.

And the political reality in Washington changed this fall—but not by much. With any issue, Johnson relies on his business experience—beginning with defining the problem and finding an achievable solution, he says. Having a Republican majority in the Senate helps to broaden the scope of what is achievable, but Johnson acknowledges that with a Democrat in the White House, there are still impediments to his party's goals.

Johnson's acceptance of political reality can be a double-edged sword. The Republican says that he no longer believes that the Affordable Care Act can be "repealed and replaced," to use what he calls a "nice, neat little slogan" from some of his Republican colleagues. Once Americans started signing up for health care under the law, it became too late to truly pull it out "root and branch," as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell likes to say.

That could present problems for Johnson's base, who elected him in part to do just that. But Johnson says he has a message for them. "Unfortunately, America reelected President Obama and our best chance of actually repealing it was when it was just a piece of a paper and it could just go away," he says, noting that millions are already "addicted to the subsidy."

Ron Johnson says that he no longer believes that the Affordable Care Act can be "repealed and replaced."

Some of his supporters may not like that answer. But if there is one thing Johnson is offering voters, he says, it's honesty. And based on the backlash Democrats faced in 2014 over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and the choruses of "If you like your plan, you can keep it," Johnson believes that is what voters are looking for.

"I think they're looking for the truth. That's what I try to deliver. That's what I'm dedicated to delivering. So, I'm hoping that that will be rewarded," he says.

That's Johnson's biggest selling point, Todd said. "Ron's as straight as a shot of uncut whiskey," he said. "He's going to level with the voter, which is something a lot of people in politics don't do."

But the fight over the Affordable Care Act isn't entirely over, Johnson says. He, like many of his Republican colleagues, has pointed to provisions of the law that have bipartisan opposition, including the medical-device tax and the 30-hour work week. Johnson noted that Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken of neighboring Minnesota both supported repealing the medical-device tax, and he's hopeful that he can work with them do so next year.

Johnson has used the tax as a central argument for hope for bipartisan cooperation in the next Congress, while rarely mentioning the fact that the plastics company he co-owns with his brother-in-law, PACUR, creates packaging for medical devices. Johnson argues that his work with device manufacturers gives him greater knowledge of the industry than many of his colleagues, but dismissed the idea that he could profit from a repeal of the tax. "You could argue, maybe, there'll be a few more dollars sales—but we've got a pretty specialized product. The customers we already have, I don't know how they'd be affected dramatically one way or the other," he said. "This has nothing to do with personal interests one way or the other."

He is also hopeful that he can work with Democrats to pass tax reform and to identify regulations that both sides agree need to be altered or eliminated altogether. "But if we can't, I mean I'm happy to take a rifle shot approach and go, 'OK, Democratic senators, there have got to be some regulations that you think have gone beyond the pale or we've reached the point of diminishing returns and we're just burdening businesses in your state,' " he says.

Johnson said he will make a conscious effort to find Democratic partners on legislation in the next Congress, avoiding the floor fights over partisan bills that have characterized the Senate over the last four years. And he takes McConnell at his word that the Republican majority will provide an open amendment process and give power back to the committees to help move bipartisan, negotiated legislation through the Congress.

THE NEW CHAIRMAN

The first test for Johnson will be as head of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee next year, where he will be the sole member of the class of 2010 running a Senate panel. Johnson vowed to work closely with Democrats, who will be led by ranking member Tom Carper of Delaware.

"I'm going to approach it the way I always approach any business negotiation," Johnson said. "Instead of arguing right off the bat, you start in this negotiation spending a lot of time figuring out the things you agreed on. That helped develop a relationship, a level of trust, and when we finally came to any areas of disagreement or contrast it's a whole lot easier to find common ground."

Asked about his relationship with Johnson, Carper mentioned that he had a roommate in the Navy by the same name. "So I start off with a good feeling," Carper joked.

But, the Democrat added, it takes a long time for a new chairman and ranking member to get on the same page. He noted that he and current ranking member Tom Coburn, who is retiring this year, worked together for eight years on a Homeland Security subcommittee and still needed a year of working together at the top of the full committee to truly "have the trust and confidence of a team."

"It's like a marriage," Carper said. "I think the three most important ingredients to the relationship that Tom Coburn and I have developed [are] the three C's: Communicate, compromise and collaborate."¦ So we'll work at it. I'll work at it hard, I'm sure [Johnson] will too. And hopefully at the end of the day we'll end up with as strong and productive a relationship as I've had with Tom Coburn all these years."

Johnson plans to begin his work as chairman by passing a border-security bill, one that he hopes will attract Democratic support. Rather than focusing on adding additional guards at the border, or building a fence—ideas he dismisses as insufficient—Johnson says that Congress needs to focus on the root of the problem: immigrants coming to the U.S. illegally for work.

So Johnson has begun circulating an early outline of legislation that would include a guest-worker program to disincentivize illegal immigration for job opportunities. The number of workers allowed into each state and the prevailing wage for those workers will be left up to the states.

Once that is done, Johnson says, Congress can get about the work of what to do with the illegal immigrants who are already living in the U.S. "As long as people, immigrants are here, working for their community, not committing crimes, not feeding off the welfare system, the reality of the situation is, I don't think those people will be deported," Johnson said.

Asked if he was indicating his support for the president's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Johnson said: "Yeah, after you secure the border."

Whether he can pass that legislation with just a 53- or 54-seat Republican majority remains to be seen. But Johnson is hopeful that he can attract Democratic votes through an open-amendment process, pointing to the leadership of Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, the No. 4 Democratic leader, as an example.

Last year, Murray led members through an hours-long amendment process, allowing debate between members of both parties. "We sat across the table like this," he said, gesturing a few feet across his desk. "So you had Democrats there, Republicans here, offering amendment after amendment and we discussed them. Bernie Sanders was coming across the table, saying, 'Take a look at this information.' OK, I'm willing to take a look at different facts, if you don't think I'm quite getting it right. That begins that relationship. You start hearing the other person's viewpoint," he said.

The losses of so many red-state Democrats in 2014 leave Republicans with fewer obvious Democratic partners for the next Congress, but Johnson said he isn't worried, vowing to work with any Democrat, regardless of their ideological interests to push legislation forward.

Those Democratic losses came in a mirror-image electoral map from the one Johnson and his blue-state colleagues will face in 2016. Asked if he learned anything from red state Democrats, all of whom (with the possible exception of Sen. Mary Landrieu in Louisiana) lost reelection this year, Johnson said chuckling: "Don't be a Democrat. I think Democrats just pretty well ignored the American public. I really think they did. I don't think we're ignoring them."

Johnson fully acknowledges that his reelection is dependent on the performance of this new Republican majority and whether they are, in fact, able to get the Senate working.

"I really do believe Americans, and Wisconsinites ... will be pleasantly surprised to find out the Republican Party is not the party of no," Johnson said.

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.

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