Politics & Policy

Why Ron Johnson Is Winning

How a businessman snuck up on Russ Feingold.

Oshkosh, Wis. – The Ron Johnson campaign isn’t complicated. It boils down to repealing Obamacare, controlling spending, and pointing out that Russ Feingold is an insider and Johnson’s not. If every Republican Senate campaign in the country could be as simple, and as successful, there wouldn’t be a Democrat left standing.

On Friday, Johnson gave a lunchtime speech at a Chamber of Commerce gathering just outside his hometown of Oshkosh and got a rapturous greeting and standing ovation.

The explanation for Johnson’s appeal seems as simple as his message.

First, he showed up at just the right time. Wisconsin swallowed “hope and change” whole, and two years of the Obama agenda has acted as a powerful emetic. Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has noted two polls that show conservatives making up a stunning 47 percent of likely voters in the Badger State. Republicans are poised to win a U.S. Senate seat and the governorship, and also could flip the state assembly and senate and win three U.S. House seats. The chairman of the Republican party here, Reince Priebus, says Wisconsin could have the most Democratic-to-Republican shifts of any state in the country.

In the question-and-answer session at the Chamber event, a man gets up and says two years ago people like him weren’t engaged in politics, but two years of Obama have woken them up. This is a running theme. At a boisterous Johnson rally later in the evening, one of the warm-up acts for Johnson, the entertaining local talk-show host James T. Harris, gets the crowd to holler, “Thank you, Barack!” because he “singlehandedly woke this nation up.”

If newly energized conservative voters had wanted to identify themselves with another apt phenomenon from American history besides the Tea Party, they could have called themselves “wide awakes,” the marching, torch-bearing Republican supporters of 1860.

“I’m guilty for not being involved earlier,” Johnson tells the questioner at the Chamber event. “I think a lot of us are. Traveling around the state, you cannot believe how many times on a daily basis people come up to me at functions and say, ‘You know’ — identical words — ‘I’ve never been involved in politics until right now.’”

Second, because he himself just woke up into active engagement, Johnson is an outsider’s outsider in an outsider’s year. The head of an Oshkosh manufacturing firm, he talks to the Chamber crowd as one of them. The schedule that is e-mailed out to reporters doesn’t say Ron Johnson will be at a given event, but that “Oshkosh manufacturer and U.S. Senate candidate Ron Johnson” will be at a given event.

“Maybe what we really need in this country,” he tells the Chamber crowd, “are citizen-legislators. People who have led a normal life, an ordinary life, a full life. Who had a full career, raised a family, drove their kids to school, attended their events.”

“I’m just a guy from Oshkosh, a husband, a father,” he continues, and says of his proposition that we need more citizen-legislators, “the test is on Tuesday.”

Third, it’s hard to imagine anyone being scared or personally put off by Ron Johnson. Electoral success often depends on simply not being radioactive, on not being hated by a critical mass of the other side. Both George W. Bush — the “compassionate conservative” — and Barack Obama — the “post-partisan” — had this going for them in their first runs for president. Johnson has this crucial quality, and it doesn’t appear to depend on contrivance. No one can deny his success as a businessman, and he’s an upbeat and relentlessly on-message campaigner.

Johnson is 55 years old, gray-haired, and trim. In going door-to-door to businesses on Main Street in Oshkosh, he walks in great bounds, assailing any stray passer-by with a smile, a handshake, and one of his “souvenir” cards — a plastic 3-D business card. Later, at a local custard stand with old-style curb-side service, he stands and signs them for fans.

His supporters emphasize his personal integrity and sincerity. At the rally, the warm-up acts, again and again, express their gratitude that Johnson decided to run. “Thank you for running, Ron Johnson,” says Paul Ryan, calling him a “man who stood up, who got tired of yelling at the TV set.”

Johnson tells me in an interview he has wanted to meet as many people as possible on the campaign trail so they can “look in my eyes, and understand how serious I am about this. It’s not about being reelected in six years.”

And so, for all these reasons, he’s snuck up on Russ Feingold, and the longtime progressive leader is about to be ousted by a characteristic tea-party candidate, in a blue state. It’d be hard to find anywhere in the country a more stark statement of the ideological import of the midterm elections.

Johnson was discovered through his speeches at two Tea Party events. At the second one, in Madison, Tommy Thompson said he’d announce whether he was going to run for Senate or not. Johnson says he was relieved because he assumed Thompson would run and that the burden was off him to decide. When Thompson declined, Johnson made the plunge in short order — boosted by influential Milwaukee talk-show host Charlie Sykes’s reading portions of his speeches on air.

Those passages strike the theme that Johnson has made a signature of his campaign — “what we’re fighting for,” as he puts it at the rally, “is our fundamental freedom.” (Sykes jokes before Johnson takes the stage that they’ve finally found a politician who will use “the F-word in public.”)

Near the end of this extraordinary campaign, I ask Johnson what he’s learned from it. “How universal the concern is in terms of the direction of the country,” he says. “This is not limited to just Tea Party people, Republicans. It’s Democrats, a lot of people who had voted for President Obama and voted for Senator Feingold in the past. People simply understand this level of spending and debt is unsustainable. It’s just such a loud and clear message. The priority, then, in terms of what we need to do is just so crystal clear.”

His stump speech includes a riff on the preciousness of the American experiment, and how we’re in danger of losing it — as simple as it gets. “If there’s anything that resonates with people when I talk to them,” he says, “it is that.”

– Rich Lowry is editor of National Review.

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