What Democrats Don’t Understand About Ron Johnson
The Wisconsin Senate race reveals larger truths about the GOP.
APPLETON, Wisconsin—Senator Ron Johnson was midway through a rambling speech on all that’s wrong with America—his villains included runaway debt, the porous southern border, gender-affirming medical treatment, and FDR’s New Deal—when he paused for a moment of self-reflection.
“It’s a huge mess,” Johnson said of the country. “I really ought to have the people who introduce me warn audiences: I’m not the most uplifting character.”
A few people in the not-quite-packed crowd at the FreedomProject Academy, a drab, low-slung private school, chuckled. The 67-year-old Republican, stumping for a third term in the Senate, was speaking at an event that his campaign had not advertised to reporters. It was sponsored by an affiliate of the John Birch Society, the right-wing advocacy group now headquartered a mile down the road in Appleton. When attendees arrived, they found on their chairs a flyer promoting a six-week seminar on the Constitution. Part one? “The Dangers of Democracy.”
In the audience, several dozen mostly older, white conservatives seemed to share Johnson’s sense of national doom. They nodded along as Johnson assailed journalists (“highly biased” advocates who “lie with impunity”) and teachers (“leftists”), as he accused President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats of “fundamentally destroying this country.” He lamented the “injustice” suffered by people awaiting trial on charges of storming the Capitol on January 6. When Johnson trumpeted his fight on behalf of “the vaccine injured” and his promotion of discredited COVID-19 treatments such as ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, he received a hearty round of applause.
Among Senate Republicans up for reelection this fall, Johnson is the Democrats’ top target, and the race is one of several that could determine which party holds a majority next year. Wisconsin is perhaps the nation’s most closely divided state: Fewer than 25,000 votes separated the two major-party candidates in each of the past two presidential elections. But Johnson isn’t racing toward the political center in the campaign’s home stretch, and he might not need to.
Johnson made a fortune as a plastics executive in nearby Oshkosh before winning his Senate seat in 2010. He reminded the crowd in Appleton that he’d made two promises during that initial campaign: that he would always tell the truth and that, as he put it, “I’ll never vote—and by extension I’ll never conduct myself—with my reelection in mind.” Democrats would vigorously dispute that Johnson has kept his first commitment. They might not contest that he’s kept the second.
After a rather unremarkable first term in the Senate, Johnson over the past few years has turned into a master of the controversial and the cringeworthy. He’s spent much of the pandemic peddling conspiracy theories about COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. He became entangled in the first impeachment of former President Donald Trump and later told reporters he had ignored a warning from the FBI that he was the target of a Russian disinformation campaign. Johnson also became involved in the events that led to Trump’s second impeachment: The House Select Committee investigating January 6 revealed that Johnson’s chief of staff had tried to hand then–Vice President Mike Pence a slate of fake electors from Wisconsin. Johnson has downplayed the attack on the Capitol, saying that the riot was not an insurrection and that he would have been concerned had those who stormed the building been “Black Lives Matter and antifa protesters” rather than Trump supporters.
At the same time, Johnson’s popularity has plunged. A Morning Consult poll published this week found that just 39 percent of Wisconsin voters approved of his performance, giving him the second-lowest home-state rating (behind only Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader) of any senator in the country. The Johnson of 2022 is unrecognizable to some Republicans who championed his first two campaigns and who saw him as a staunch but not extreme conservative, a politician more like Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan than Trump. “There’s no question that the Ron Johnson who ran in 2010 and 2016 was not the conspiracy theorist that you see now,” Charlie Sykes, a longtime conservative-radio host in Wisconsin who co-founded The Bulwark, told me. Sykes has many theories about the cause of Johnson’s transformation. But it boils down to a simple conclusion: “Trump broke his brain.”
Yet if Johnson this year is the Senate’s most electorally vulnerable Republican, he’s also proving to be among its most resilient. He scored a come-from-behind reelection victory after GOP leaders abandoned his campaign in 2016. In the past few weeks, he’s erased a summertime polling deficit to take a slim lead over his Democratic opponent, Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, and give Republicans a better shot at reclaiming the Senate majority. Johnson led 52 percent to 46 percent among likely voters in a survey released yesterday by Marquette University Law School.
Johnson’s resurgence has frustrated and even confounded Democrats, who worry that a well-funded and vicious crime-focused ad campaign is dragging down their nominee in a pivotal battleground. But they may be underestimating the depth of Johnson’s appeal and misjudging whether his supposedly unpopular stands hurt him as much as they thought.
Oddly enough, the one topic Johnson didn’t bring up in Appleton was his opponent, Barnes. With help from national Republicans, Johnson is pummeling Barnes on the airwaves, spending millions to convince Wisconsinites that the 35-year-old vying to be the state’s first Black U.S. senator is a criminal-coddling radical. The ads seek to exploit positions on which even some Democrats concede that Barnes is vulnerable; his support for ending cash bail has come under particular scrutiny following a Christmas-parade massacre last year in Waukesha, when a suspect who was out on bail for domestic violence allegedly killed six people and injured dozens more after driving his SUV into a crowd.
The GOP ads strike many Barnes supporters as clearly racist. One spot from the National Republican Senatorial Committee that calls Barnes a “defund-the-police Democrat” depicts him in front of a wall spray-painted with graffiti alongside two other Democrats of color, Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. Another uses similar imagery and flashes the words dangerous and different next to Barnes.
If the barrage is angering Barnes, he’s good at hiding it. Despite his relative youth, he’s been running for office for a decade. When I sat down with him after a speech in Sheboygan, Barnes was effortlessly on message. Johnson’s ads, he told me, were “some of the worst I’ve seen in any election cycle, anywhere.” And he acknowledged that “the unprecedented sums of money” funding them represented the biggest obstacle he faced between now and the election.
Despite this assessment, however, Barnes seemed relatively unperturbed by their content. He refused to label them racist, as many of his supporters do, and he dismissed the attacks on him as evidence that Johnson had done little in the Senate worth promoting. “Unlike Ron Johnson, I can talk about things that I want to do to actually help people,” Barnes said. “And that’s what people want to hear day to day.”
Barnes won election as lieutenant governor in 2018 after four years in the state legislature. His bid for the Democratic Senate nomination had been competitive for months, but Barnes ultimately consolidated the party’s support when, one by one, his opponents withdrew and endorsed him days ahead of the August primary. He has close ties to the progressive, labor-oriented Working Families Party, having delivered its response to Trump’s State of the Union address in 2019. Barnes frequently highlights his devotion to unions—“My dad worked third shift” is a constant refrain—as a way to connect with Black workers in and around Milwaukee and to make inroads with more culturally conservative white laborers elsewhere in the state, many of whom backed Trump.
Barnes’s supporters see him as a once-in-a-generation talent, and he comes across as warm and easygoing on the stump. “Hello, Senator, our future president!” one older woman fawned as she shook his hand before he spoke to a crowded union hall in Sheboygan. “Oh no,” Barnes replied. “This is stressful enough.”
Although Barnes is running ads attacking Johnson on abortion and economic issues, many of his commercials are much sunnier spots clearly designed to reassure Wisconsin voters that he’s not the “dangerous” radical Republicans are making him out to be. In one he’s pushing a shopping cart through a supermarket, and in another he’s unpacking groceries. “Ron Johnson’s at it again, lying about my taxes,” Barnes says while making himself a PB&J in another ad. The strategy is reminiscent of the campaign that Reverend Raphael Warnock ran in Georgia in 2020, when he relied on cheery ads featuring a beagle, Alvin, to counter nasty GOP attacks aimed at scaring off white suburban voters.
Democrats I spoke with applauded Barnes’s ads. But as the polls have shifted toward Johnson in recent weeks, they lamented that Johnson’s race-baiting message was succeeding, and worried that Barnes’s campaign of reassurance, although necessary, was insufficient. “Get aggressive. Get dirty like they do,” Fred Hass, a 76-year-old retired union worker, said in Sheboygan when I asked what he wanted to see from Barnes.
“I don’t think he has the luxury to spend all his time on reassurance,” David Axelrod, the former top adviser to Barack Obama, told me, referring to Barnes. “He shouldn’t fight with one hand tied behind his back, and I think he almost has to be on offense here.” (When I asked him about this criticism, Barnes defended his decision to focus equally, if not more, on himself. “Your opponent being bad isn’t enough,” he said. “You’ve got to tell people what you stand for.”)
No politician has succeeded in Wisconsin quite like Obama did, a fact that complicates the question of how much race is a factor in Barnes’s recent slide. Obama’s 14-point victory in 2008—he won by seven points in 2012—remains the largest margin for any presidential candidate in Wisconsin in the past half century. (It’s also unmatched by any contender for Senate or governor in the years since.) Every other presidential contest in this century has been decided by less than a single point. In 2018, the Democrat Tony Evers—with Barnes as his running mate—defeated the Republican Scott Walker’s bid for a third term as governor by fewer than 30,000 votes. With that in mind, the only prediction that both Democratic and GOP operatives are willing to make is that the Johnson-Barnes race will be close. (The Republican bidding to oust Evers, Tim Michels, declared at a recent rally that he’d win in a “Wisconsin landslide,” which he then defined as “probably like three points.”)
Although Wisconsin has earned its reputation as a 50–50 swing state, it does not habitually elect leaders who hug the political center and historically has embraced ideologues from both the left and right. The home of Robert La Follette and the Progressive Party of the early 20th century soon became the state that twice sent the anti-communist demagogue Joseph McCarthy to the Senate. More recently, as Wisconsin veered left to embrace Obama, it also voted again and again for Walker, who amassed one of the most conservative records of any governor in the country. No state has two senators as ideologically mismatched as Wisconsin’s Johnson and the Democrat Tammy Baldwin, a progressive and the first openly LGBTQ woman elected to Congress. “There’s a little bit of political schizophrenia in Wisconsin,” Sykes said.
Given the polarized and closely divided electorate, political strategists see a vanishingly small population of swing voters, perhaps 100,000 or 150,000 out of about 3.5 million statewide. Johnson, whose campaign did not respond to requests for comment, clearly sees his path to victory in turning out the conservative base and disqualifying Barnes in the eyes of that sliver of persuadable voters.
The hope of Barnes’s campaign in the final stretch—and the biggest threat to Johnson’s—is embodied in a man named Ken.
Ken lives in a suburb of Green Bay, in an area that shifted, along with much of the state, ever so slightly to the left between Trump’s victory in 2016 and Biden’s in 2020. On the first Saturday in October, a pair of Barnes canvassers were knocking doors as I trailed along. Not many people were answering, and the few who did politely turned them away.
Then the canvassers approached a group of three middle-aged white men who were enjoying beers on a patio in back of one of the houses on their list. Anyone familiar with the demographic divide in modern politics would have taken one look and assumed they were Trump (and by extension, Johnson) voters. They did not appear eager to talk politics, and after a few curt replies, Nicole Slavin, a sales manager who had experience canvassing, bid them a polite goodbye and began to back away.
Seeking confirmation of our hunch, I asked which candidate they were supporting, and Ken (he declined to provide his last name) spoke up and said he had already returned his ballot by mail. “The only reason—the only reason—I voted for Evers and Barnes was the abortion decision,” Ken said. The Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization revived an 1849 Wisconsin law banning abortion in most cases, which the GOP-controlled legislature has refused to repeal or modify. “It’s almost like sending women back 50 years, what they’re talking about,” Ken said. A longtime Republican, he told me he voted for Trump in 2016 before flipping to Biden in the last election. “I don’t care about all the other crap, but that was one thing that really stood out,” he said of the abortion ruling.
Slavin was pleasantly surprised, but she told me she had met several people in the past few months who cited abortion as the driving factor in their support for Democrats. Conversations like those, and voters like Ken, are giving the party some hope that anger over the Dobbs decision will change the electorate in Wisconsin, much as it turned what was expected to be a close August referendum in Kansas into a landslide win for supporters of abortion rights.
About an hour before Slavin hit the doors, Barnes had launched a statewide “Ron Against Roe” tour aimed at shifting the focus of his campaign away from Johnson’s attacks on him and back toward friendlier turf. A few days later, Barnes launched a new TV ad hitting Johnson for backing a national ban on abortion and for saying in 2019 that if people don’t like abortion restrictions in their state, they “can move.”
Johnson has since called for a statewide referendum on abortion, a position he highlighted when Barnes attacked him on the issue during a debate last week. But his 2019 comment was, to Johnson’s critics, just one more example of his lurch out of the political mainstream over the past few years—a shift for which Democrats hope Wisconsinites hold their senator accountable. To them, he is one more Republican who lost his mind in the Trump era. Johnson’s supporters see in him a conservative iconoclast who hasn’t wavered. “Wisconsinites like independent people, and that’s why I think Ron Johnson is going to win,” Representative Glenn Grothman, a Republican who represents Johnson’s home, in Oshkosh, told me. “Anybody who thinks that Ron Johnson has changed is just a partisan reporter.”
Whether Johnson has changed could ultimately prove less important than whether the events of the past several months, and the abortion decision in particular, have changed Wisconsin voters and what they care about. Johnson has proudly stood against public opinion plenty of times before, with few tangible consequences. The next few weeks will decide whether this year, and this issue, will be different.