Milwaukee, Wis. — A Republican party of Wisconsin field office is buzzing, a full 19 months before election day, as volunteers drop off packages for veterans and man a phone bank on a frigid President’s Day in “crucial Waukesha county.”
“Our focus is Ron Johnson getting reelected,” Joe Medina, a local pastor who serves as the RPW’s liaison to the Hispanic community, tells National Review Online.
If there’s bipartisan agreement about anything in D.C., it’s that the GOP will have a tough time saving the Ayn Rand Republican who upset a three-term Senate Democrat in 2010. And yet, Republican operatives involved in the race disagree with that conventional wisdom. They are so confident about Johnson’s prospects, in fact, that the candidate they’d most like to face is the Democrat regarded as his most fearsome challenger. A lot of that optimism derives from the recent success of Governor Scott Walker (R., Wis.), which they take as hopeful sign about both GOP savvy in the state and the mood of Wisconsin voters. Republicans also believe that Johnson has maintained a rapport with constituents that will insulate him from any backlash against Congress. The state where the GOP might seem likely to struggle the most could, in their view, give the party the biggest reason to celebrate on Election Night.
Ron Johnson is supposed to be the political equivalent of a dead man walking — the poster boy for a group of Republicans who soared to blue-state victories in the 2010 midterms, only, in all likelihood, to crash like Icarus in 2016. These blue-state Republicans, the thinking goes, will be done in by a number of political liabilities, chief among them the surge in Democratic turnout during presidential campaigns. Fights between congressional conservatives and Obama, such as that over the Department of Homeland Security funding bill that bans implementation of the president’s recent executive orders, will force the 2010 class of Republicans to choose between alienating their conservative base and turning off independents. To the extent that this theory is true, it should apply with special force to Johnson, who chairs the Senate committee that has jurisdiction over DHS, and who represents a state that has voted Democratic in presidential elections since 1984. Furthermore, he seems likely to face the same Democrat he defeated in 2010, former senator Russ Feingold (D., Wis.), who “would start with high name recognition and a loyal liberal following,” the Washington Post has noted.
Wisconsin Republicans tell a different story, one that will buoy the spirits of conservatives. They say that thanks to the political infrastructure developed during Scott Walker’s bruising battles, and to Johnson’s record as an honest conservative who has nonetheless managed to avoid the Tea Party’s biggest missteps, he can win one of the toughest Senate races in the country.
Walker’s string of uninterrupted victories has forged a battle-tested state party confident in its ability to prevail even in difficult elections. “This is the first time that a permanent campaign infrastructure has been maintained,” one GOP operative says, referring to the six field offices that the party has opened in the state. (The GOP had opened four field offices at this time last cycle.) The executive-amnesty fight has not emerged as a major liability in the state. And while a recent Marquette Law School poll showed Feingold with a higher favorability rating than Walker, Republican operatives would rather face Feingold than a Democrat with a shorter record of support for Obama’s policies. “[Feingold] was a known product that was rejected in 2010,” says Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee and former chairman of the Wisconsin Republican party.
Johnson agrees. “He’s got a record of being fully supportive of a big, intrusive, controlling federal government, and I would say right now that that doesn’t sell very well,” he tells NRO.
What does sell, the GOP believes, is Johnson’s reputation as a straight-talking, independent problem-solver — not unlike the brand that made Feingold such a popular lawmaker until his votes for Obamacare and other left-wing policies dropped the curtains on his pose as a moderate. Before speaking at a tea-party rally in 2010, Johnson, a successful businessman, was regarded by many conservatives as a potential Republican donor rather than a prospective candidate for office. When a state-assembly seat opened up in his area, Johnson didn’t run for it, despite having the personal wealth and (as time would tell) the political ability to win. Instead, he joined the “kitchen cabinet”of advisers for the eventual candidate.
“[Ron] never struck me as a guy who would run for office,” says Brian Schimming, who served in that “kitchen cabinet” and joined Walker’s administration this week after stints working for the state party and as a talk-show host in Madison, Wis. “Life is good for him.”
Johnson hosts events in Wisconsin at every opportunity. Hundreds of thousands of constituents have participated in the virtual town halls that he conducts when he can’t get back to the state. Often, he talks constituents through “the awful reality” of the country’s finances. “I’m not bulls***ting anybody,” Johnson says. “I’m just trying to convey the truth that I perceive as best as I can.”
Even while issuing dire fiscal warnings, Johnson tries to keep a moderate tone. “I don’t think I’m bombastic,” he says. “The way I exhibit my independence is I am honoring what promises I made to the voters in 2010. I didn’t make many of them, but I guaranteed the citizens of Wisconsin that I would always tell them the truth.”
It has worked, so far. The Tea Party is viewed favorably by just 25 percent of Wisconsin voters, compared with 47 percent who view it unfavorably. In the same Marquette Law School poll cited above, Johnson has a 37 percent favorability rating, with 31 percent viewing him unfavorably. The other 32 percent of voters who don’t have an opinion of him represent a growth opportunity, according to Priebus.
“You can say Ron Johnsons’s name ID isn’t to the moon and back, but that gives Ron Johnson the ability to build his name ID and build on his messaging to people who might not know him well,” Priebus says, adding that he thinks Feingold’s 45 percent favorability rating is his ceiling. “That 45 fav/unfav is exactly the number he was at in May of 2010.”
Democrats hope to use the DHS funding fight over executive amnesty to brand Johnson as too much of an ideologue for Wisconsin. “Ron Johnson has demonstrated that he’s willing to put tea-party politics ahead of national security and local public safety in Wisconsin,” said DSCC national press secretary Sadie Weiner in a statement last week. The Service Employees International Union recently commissioned a survey from Public Policy Polling that accused Johnson of “refusing to fund the Department of Homeland Security, putting national security at risk” by opposing the executive amnesty; the poll then asked voters if that made them less likely to vote for Johnson. Forty-nine percent of respondents said it did. Perhaps remarkably, given the partisan framing of the question in the survey, 33 percent of the people polled said they supported the GOP’s position on the issue.
In light of the fact that Republicans are not refusing to fund DHS — the House did pass an appropriations bill that Democrats have filibustered in the Senate, after all — and that almost 90 percent of DHS employees will keep working even if the funding lapses temporarily, Republicans can regard those polling figures as a worst-case scenario. That said, Johnson doesn’t expect the media to cover the topic fairly. His pessimism springs from an encounter with a political reporter who asked if the GOP would shut down DHS.
“We’re talking about furloughing maybe 13.6 percent until we find some common ground,” Johnson recalls saying; he further explained that the rest of DHS would not shut down, under any circumstances, because it is deemed essential and therefore continues to receive funding even when Congress doesn’t pass an appropriations bill. “The reporter, just point blank, said, ‘Well that’s not the way we’re going to report it.’”
The Democratic strategy of making Johnson into a tea-party cartoon is further hampered by his opposition to the defund-Obamacare effort in 2013, an effort spearheaded by Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas) and Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah) that resulted in a government shutdown that lasted 16 days. Cruz and Lee gave swing-state Republicans an opportunity to distinguish themselves from the ideological hardline of their own party; red-state Democrats almost never received this chance from erstwhile Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.).
“There was some flak from folks in the state on the right, on him not standing with Ted Cruz, but he did what he felt was right; he followed what he thought was the best strategy,” says one GOP operative, who argued that the town halls allowed Johnson to maintain his conservative support throughout that process. “He explains why he did what he did, why he thinks what he thinks, and people walk out saying, ‘Okay, maybe I still disagree with you, but, okay.’”
In any case, Johnson believes the DHS funding-bill fight is “not going to be a factor” by 2016. “In terms of my reelection, I don’t think this is going to be a lingering issue,” he says.
It’s barely an issue now, to judge from the local media attention. “In the media, it’s really been [about] Walker and the budget,” says Amber Wichowsky, a political-science professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee. “The focus is on Walker.”
Walker’s domination of the political discourse in Wisconsin has more positives than negatives for Johnson, GOP operatives say. Although the senator isn’t as well-known as Walker, he still inherits the volunteer army that the governor built during his three elections in four years.
“The Walker-recall issue and the constant campaigning by Scott Walker is a huge help in driving the idea of a year-round party, and it’s happened in Wisconsin,” Priebus says.
Those elections also foster hope that the turnout gap, from midterm to presidential years, won’t swamp Johnson. “It is not as if the GOP just won sleepy off-year elections when no one was watching,” as the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Saleno Zito wrote. “They’ve won with high turnouts in all of the election cycles since 2009; the presidential cycle was higher, of course, but the midterm turnouts hit historic highs as well.”
Between Walker’s strength and Johnson’s skills, Republicans think they can cut a firebreak for their Senate majority in Wisconsin — and maybe a trail to the White House, as well. That doesn’t mean it won’t be tough. “I think that the Republican party has got to be about perfect, and I think we can be,” Priebus says.
Editor’s note: This piece has been amended since its initial posting.
— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.