Politics & Policy

A Candidate’s Education

An inside look at how neophyte Ron Johnson learned the ropes.

In early April of 2010, Michelle Litjens, the chairwoman of the Winnebago County Republican party, found a local guy who was thinking of running for the U.S. Senate. She brought him to a meeting of a handful of conservative operatives in Madison. A plastics manufacturer, he’d never been involved in politics. He didn’t even know he was supposed to speak at the meeting, and had to patch together a few talking points in the car on the way down.

After Litjens introduced the candidate to the group, people rolled their eyes and checked their watches as he awkwardly ambled through his reasons for running. There were already other, more seasoned people thinking about seeking the GOP nomination, including former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson. Just who did this guy think he was?

Thompson chose not to run, however, and that plastics manufacturer, Ron Johnson, won the GOP nomination. News of his candidacy remained in the spotlight for about ten minutes before Wisconsin residents returned to the state’s new all-encompassing pastime, hating Brett Favre’s guts — because against this newcomer, sitting Democratic senator Russ Feingold seemed bulletproof. Elected every six years since 1992, Feingold had cultivated a reputation as a “maverick” willing to break ranks with his party on fiscal issues. He aimed to be the pluripotent senator — able to adapt to whatever political environment confronted him at the time. However, his recent votes for the controversial health-care overhaul and the expensive and ineffective “stimulus” bill had weakened him substantially.

It fell to deputy campaign manager Jack Jablonski to prepare Ron Johnson for the rigors of campaign question-and-answer sessions. The early days of Johnson’s campaign were beset by verbal stumbles and misstatements, such as when Johnson suggested he was running for office because he had heard Dick Morris say that some rich guy should take Feingold on.

Hiding Ron Johnson’s lack of articulacy quickly became the central focus of the campaign, with which I was embedded for six months. “Ron is prone to mistakes,” one staffer told me, explaining why they were keeping him away from the media for the time being.

As a result, campaign manager Juston Johnson (no relation to the senator) and communications director Kristin Ruesch began an “issues boot camp” for the new candidate. They locked Johnson in a room for three days in mid-June and fired questions at him: What do you think caused the financial crash? Is Obama a Marxist? Are you the tea-party candidate? These became known as the “murder sessions.”

Both Jablonski and Juston knew that Johnson was a smart guy. “He’d sit and study policy papers all day if he could,” Juston told me. “But he’s also very impatient and sensitive to his own vulnerabilities. He can’t stand just saying ‘I don’t know’ when asked a tough question. It’s our job to teach him that sometimes it’s okay to give a 10- to 15-second answer, then pivot to jobs and the economy.”

Despite Johnson’s willingness to learn, these behind-the-scenes question-and-answer sessions often got testy. At times, Johnson’s obduracy ground the meetings to a halt. He didn’t think he’d be asked many of the questions his staff posed him. They often had to go back over issues several times.

The third week in July, Johnson began a tour of the western half of Wisconsin. His public appearances in places such as Hudson, River Falls, and La Crosse were limited primarily to Tea Party events or ones similar to them. When speaking in front of these groups, Johnson often got too comfortable with his message. For instance, while he dodged a bullet by denying he wanted to drill for oil in Lake Michigan (an early Feingold accusation), he soldiered on with his message that BP shouldn’t be vilified. This caused much consternation among his staff, who pleaded with him to stay away from anything but the most basic talking points on the BP issue. “I will not stop defending the producers of America,” he shot back.

To the Tea Party groups, Johnson’s free-market rhetoric was golden. He strongly expressed his belief in the power of free markets to pull Wisconsin out of the recession.

His campaign staffers didn’t necessarily disagree with that philosophy. But they had a campaign to win. And as long as the man-made hole in the Gulf of Mexico continued to spew oil, it was an open wound to Americans.

Over the course of the campaign, Johnson would call free trade “creative destruction,” implying that Americans’ losing their jobs to factories overseas was okay because it strengthened the economy overall. He would say that “poor people don’t create jobs.” He would express his opinion that people should be able to get their primary health care at Walmart. And he would say — to the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, no less — that he believed sunspots were a primary cause of global warming (thereby earning the ridicule of Jon Stewart).

Again, on none of these issues was Johnson necessarily wrong. But the campaign trail isn’t the best place to introduce such ideas if you have no more than 15 seconds to explain them.

The staff were especially worried about the fact that the Democrats had pulled their video-camera-wielding tracker off Johnson. “I’m sure they have enough stuff by now. We’re creating new material by the day,” one staffer told me.

There were times when the staff could tell Johnson was trying to meet their concerns. On the morning of July 26, Johnson was scheduled to do an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio’s Joy Cardin. In the pre-interview sessions, he kept saying that we need to drill for oil “where it’s safe, like the Gulf of Mexico.” Staffers kept reminding him that he shouldn’t say that on the air, because the public didn’t consider the Gulf of Mexico an especially safe place to drill. Sixteen minutes into the interview, “Larry from Neillsville” called in to ask Johnson whether he’d ever told anyone it would be okay to drill for oil in the Great Lakes. Johnson said no, but went on to point out that America is an oil-based economy. Then he said: “We need to drill where it’s safe,” paused, and moved on to another talking point. He had stopped precisely where he needed to.

The constant drum of negative media stories about Johnson during September was creating a schism within his campaign staff. Ruesch and Sara Sendek, his public-relations team, wanted to keep open lines of communication with the press. They felt that by continuing to use their judgment with reporters, they might be able to head off more negative stories.

Juston and Jablonski had a different philosophy. Juston describes his preferred strategy as: “Don’t ever f***ing talk to the media. For any reason. Ever.” They figured the press was going to write unflattering stories about Johnson no matter what, so there was no sense in giving them material. The best bet was taking Johnson’s message directly to the voters via television ads. “We spend a lot of time worrying about the media, and almost no time worrying about Russ Feingold,” said Jablonski.

But Johnson would have to worry about his opponent soon enough: Russ Feingold was one of the Senate’s most eloquent debaters, and Johnson had to go toe-to-toe with him. From the beginning, the campaign knew its strategy for the debates: Just don’t make any news. Senate debates are universally watched by nobody — you can’t win a campaign by performing well in one. But you can certainly damage your campaign by saying something that will be used in a television ad against you.

Johnson and his staff spent the better half of September locked in a room practicing; one particularly grueling session ended with a profane five-minute shouting match over a detail about Social Security. Johnson eventually encouraged a different method of debate prep, in which he would sit around a table with his staffers and discuss issues before distilling what he learned into usable sound bites. But he complained that his staff continued to “murderboard” him (in a play on “waterboard”). And just three days before the first debate, one staffer said that the prep had gone “off the rails.”

Yet in the actual debates — of which there were three — Johnson performed admirably. He rattled off facts and figures like a seasoned politician. There were small missteps — for instance, he impoliticly referred to the “Bush” tax cuts — but he did not give the Feingold campaign the sort of ammunition it hoped for.

Four days before November 2, Johnson took the stage before 400 supporters in Oshkosh and delivered an erudite speech that outlined his vision of American exceptionalism. The crowd surged forward during the speech, as if recognizing Johnson as the living embodiment of, and answer to, its trepidation about the future.

Johnson had come a long way. He may have decided to run because he abhorred politicians — but in the end he became a plausible one himself.

Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. This is adapted from a five-part series in Wisconsin Interest Magazine. The full series can be read here.

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