The Ron Johnson Factor
Wisconsin’s tea-party senator backs Mitt Romney.

Senator Ron Johnson (R., Wis.)


Robert Costa

In late March, Mitt Romney met with a handful of Republican senators in Senator Jim DeMint’s Capitol Hill office. DeMint, a South Carolina conservative, made clear to the group that he would remain unaligned during the presidential primary. But he wanted to give his colleagues, especially the freshmen, a chance to converse with the GOP front-runner.

One of those first-term members, Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, came away impressed. A successful and mild-mannered former businessman, Johnson appreciated Romney’s focus on economic growth and attention to the ballooning federal debt, which has become the senator’s bailiwick. “We were able to ask some pretty pointed questions,” he tells National Review Online. “That gave me a great deal of confidence that [Romney] fully understands the problem.”

“He’s got a background in finance and we’re dealing with huge budget deficits,” Johnson says. “It’s important that we have somebody in the White House who understands the problem, who acknowledges the problem, and who will solve the problem. That’s what’s missing.”

Johnson’s eleventh-hour endorsement, which he announced Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press, is the latest boost for Romney, who currently leads the polls in Wisconsin. As Badger State Republicans vote today, Johnson’s support will almost certainly be a factor, due to his popularity with tea-party activists — his political base — and with the state’s business leaders.

Another prominent Wisconsin Republican, Representative Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, recently endorsed Romney. But it’s Johnson’s nod that intrigues political observers because his support, though hardly front-page news in most quarters, was unexpected. For the most part, the 56-year-old senator had been mum for months, sending few public signals.

Johnson, who entered politics after gaining notice as a speaker at tea-party rallies, is confident that Romney will be a capable nominee. But another reason for his endorsement, he says, is his growing concern that the primary is distracting the party from its main target, President Obama.

“[Romney] is likely the only candidate who can win enough delegates to win the nomination before the convention,” Johnson says. “The other candidates can only be spoilers and hope for chaos. Every fiscal conservative has to realize that the number one priority is to defeat Obama, to make him a one-term president.” A protracted primary, Johnson concludes, will “diminish our chances.”

Looking ahead, Johnson hopes that Republicans eventually embrace Romney’s business background. In his 2010 race against Senator Russ Feingold, an incumbent Democrat, Johnson used his years as the executive of a plastics company to bolster his cause. “We need more people in government that have had real experience in the private sector — people who respect it,” he says.

Instead of worrying about Democrats’ demonizing wealth, Johnson says, Republicans should tout Romney’s work at Bain Capital as one of his top assets.

“I’d much rather have a successful individual running our country than someone who has failed in life,” Johnson says. “If being successful in the business world is a disqualification for the presidency, then we’ve come to a very bad spot in this country. Without rubbing it in, you should be proud of having a successful life, of understanding how the free-market system works.”

Over the weekend, Johnson says, after he expressed his admiration for Romney’s “seriousness of purpose” to party leaders, he was promptly asked by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to coordinate the GOP’s congressional message with the presidential nominee. It’s a role that he will fulfill with relish during the general-election campaign, he says.

“We’ve got to be firing on all cylinders with a coordinated agenda,” Johnson says. “My message to the governor when I saw him on Sunday was, ‘help us help you.’ That’s what it’s going to take.” Other recent Romney endorsers, he says, such as Senators Mike Lee of Utah and Marco Rubio of Florida, are eager to help the front-runner connect with conservatives.

But for now, Johnson says, he is getting ready to watch the returns. He expects Romney to sweep the “ring counties” outside Milwaukee — Ozaukee, Washington, and Waukesha. Those are all important Republican hotbeds. Santorum may do well in sporadic rural areas, he adds, but on the whole, he thinks strong totals in the suburbs can help Romney win big statewide.

Johnson acknowledges that he doesn’t have operatives to offer Romney’s sprawling Wisconsin campaign, but he still carries significant weight with conservative activists, who two years ago lifted Johnson from obscurity during a contested party convention. In a state where Republicans constantly battle for power, he says, endorsements matter, so he wanted to weigh in.

“Wisconsin has been the epicenter of American politics for the past 14 months,” Johnson observes, referencing Republican governor Scott Walker’s efforts to repair the state’s long-term fiscal situation by curbing the power of public-sector unions. “We can also lead the nomination process by giving Romney a big victory,” he says. “It’d be a sign that Republicans recognize the reality, and that we’re ready to turn our attention back to the president.”

— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.