"They had some missteps. They missed a lot of opportunities in those first few years," said Scott Klug, a former Republican congressman who runs a public advocacy firm in Madison. "The question will be: Is the last 18 months enough to turn around and make up for the gap?"
Johnson's tenure is seen as a test case for what happens when someone truly new to politics assumes one of its most difficult jobs. His reelection, in no small part, will be a referendum on whether voters will tolerate his steep learning curve.
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It was as simple as the issues Johnson would discuss once in office. Both privately and publicly, the senator talked about only Obamacare and the debt and deficit—issues that, while important to Republicans, represented only a few of the issues that confront a senator daily. Some Republican leaders reported hearing the same presentation on the subjects—delivered via PowerPoint—three times.
"When he got elected, it was, 'OK, I got elected because of the debt' "¦ and he was so hyperfocused on that, frankly, he did have a little bit of blinders on because of the debt, and spending that led to the debt, that he missed some of the other things that he should have been paying attention to," said Mark Graul, a well-known Republican and former strategist in Wisconsin. "You can walk and chew gum at the same time."
Current and former Johnson staffers call the griping around Madison and Milwaukee the simple byproduct of unhappy lobbyists flummoxed by a lawmaker focused on the big picture instead of their individual needs. And they're eager to embrace the notion that Johnson remains a political outsider, disliked by GOP insiders but still popular with the grassroots voters who put him into office in the first place.
"If you are saying that Ron Johnson is different from the career politicians that are so common in Washington, you are exactly right," said Betsy Ankney, Johnson's campaign manager. "The people of Wisconsin chose Ron Johnson because he is an accountant and a manufacturer and not a politician at all. That's exactly what the voters wanted after 18 years of a partisan Washington insider like Senator Feingold."
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But Republicans say Johnson's fixation on that pair of issues was part of a larger political blind spot that also manifested itself when the senator made controversial votes. Johnson has taken a few of them seemingly at odds with his state's centrist electorate, such as opposing the farm bill shortly after taking office in 2011. But conservatives say he's also shown little feel for how his votes will play within his own electoral base, like in 2013, when he flipped against his initial opposition to the Ryan-Murray budget deal.
"One of the challenges he's had to deal with is anticipating the political fallout of particular votes; in other words, developing a good political radar," said Matt Batzel, the Wisconsin-based national executive director of American Majority, a conservative grassroots group. "Just because another Republican congressman like Paul Ryan can communicate the rationale for a vote, doesn't mean others will be able to explain it well to the base or an interest group or another demographic who might be upset."