Politics & Policy

A GOP Senate Comeback in Wisconsin

(Image via RonJohnsonforSenate.com)
Bucking the trend

Wisconsin – What’s it like to be abandoned by the Republican party and the Washington establishment? Ask Ron Johnson, the Wisconsin senator whose reelection race was written off early on by political poohbahs as a lost cause.

His opponent is the former Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold, who was one of the most surprising Democratic casualties of the 2010 tea-party wave, and one of the earliest to announce his candidacy this cycle in May of 2015. Feingold served three terms in the Senate before Johnson defeated him six years ago, and he wants his old seat back. Thanks to his long career in politics, he remains better known than Johnson among Wisconsinites, and Johnson has trailed by double digits for most of the campaign. Conventional wisdom gelled early that Johnson was a dead man and, as a result, neither the National Republican Senatorial Committee nor its Democratic counterpart has invested much in the race.

Then something funny happened. A handful of recent polls show Johnson mounting a breathtaking last-minute comeback: The latest Marquette University Law School poll puts him just two points behind Feingold, within the poll’s margin of error, and campaign sources say this tracks with their internal numbers, which are calculated using the Wisconsin Republican party’s data machine, which helped Scott Walker fend off a recall and then got him reelected. “On the ground,” says the Wisconsin-based Republican strategist Mark Graul, the race “has felt and looked very close to me for the last couple of weeks.” While some outside groups that had cut their losses and pulled out of the state are back. The Koch brothers’ Freedom Partners Action Fund, which had maintained a presence on the ground throughout, canceled ad buys in July, but is back up now with a $1 million effort. The free-market Club for Growth is also up with a $750,000 ad buy slamming Feingold in the closing weeks of the election.  

There was reason to believe Johnson was a goner. He was elected in a banner year for Republicans, and 2016 is shaping up differently, to say the least. In Wisconsin, regional factors have compounded the damaging effects Donald Trump is having on Republican candidates down ballot. Wisconsin hasn’t voted for a Republican Senate candidate in a presidential year since 1980. Trump didn’t help matters when he barnstormed the state during the GOP primary in March berating Republican governor Scott Walker and pooh-poohing the Wisconsin economy – which is actually in good shape. “He came in with guns a-blazin’ against Scott Walker and against the state and I said, ‘Ya know, that’s not the way to come into Wisconsin,’ I just kept telling his people,” says Tara Balts, the chairwoman of the Republican party of Eau Claire County, who on Monday recruited a handful of conservatives for a roundtable on Obamacare at which Johnson held court. Hillary Clinton now leads Trump in Wisconsin by 6.7 points in the Real Clear Politics average.

At the same time, the state has been friendly to Republicans on the state and local level, electing Walker to the governorship in 2010 and again in 2014. House speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin native, remains the most popular Republican in the country.  

There’s another interesting factor at work in the Johnson–​Feingold rematch. This has been billed as the year of outsiders, with voters consistently saying they are fed up with politics-as-usual. Well, Johnson is actually a Washington outsider who worked his way through college at the University of Minnesota and went on to become the CEO of the plastics-manufacturing company founded by his father-in-law and brother-in-law. He calls himself a “citizen legislator” and he has pledged to serve only two terms.

Yet he might well lose to the sort of career politician voters claim to abhor. A Rhodes scholar and Harvard Law School graduate, Feingold has been relatively unabashed about his desire to spend his life in politics. Shortly after his defeat in 2010, after pushing through a campaign-finance law that bears his name, he created a political-action committee supposedly intended to back liberal candidates, but which served more effectively as a campaign-in-waiting for his next Senate bid. He drew a salary from the organization, and it lined his pockets in other ways, spending nearly as much money buying up copies of his 2012 book, While America Sleeps: A Wake-Up Call to the Post-9/11 World, as it did boosting those progressive candidates. Many of the PAC’s former staffers now work on the Feingold campaign.

Johnson isn’t a politician and he doesn’t sound like one, which has benefits and drawbacks. His plainspoken business talk resonates with managers but less so with workers. Andy Wickstrom, the general manager of a Rice Lake, Wis., manufacturing plant for the rifle company Henry Repeating Arms, calls him “refreshing”: “He knows what he’s talking about when he walks through a manufacturing plant,” Wickstrom said after he gave Johnson a tour. “He’s smart from a management perspective.”

The story of Henry’s Wisconsin employees is the story of many blue-collar workers across the country. Hundreds were laid off in 2006 when Wright Products, which supplied rifle components to Henry, outsourced most of the 600 jobs once filled by Rice Lake residents, to China. A small group of the onetime Wright employees pooled their resources to buy the manufacturing equipment in 2006 and are now up and running as a Henry outpost that now employs over 200 people. Nonetheless, the workers there have felt the effects of globalization personally and acutely.

Johnson isn’t a politician and he doesn’t sound like one, which has benefits and drawbacks.

About 50 of them gathered on the factory floor on Tuesday to hear Johnson speak. If he was at ease with many of them, he wasn’t connecting with others. A middle-aged woman clad in a denim jumper told him, with a worried expression on her face, that she had seen a Feingold ad assailing Johnson for his vote against the Paycheck Fairness Act and other measures ostensibly designed to boost the negotiating power of women in the workplace. She asked him if he really believed women should be paid less than men. Johnson, with a wave of his hand, told her Democrats like to lard up bills with “poison-pill amendments” – that is, amendments to a bill intended to sink the legislation – so that they can run attack ads against their opponents later.

The look of concern didn’t leave the woman’s face, and she pressed him: “So, you really don’t believe that?” Again, Johnson came at her with an explanation about how legislation like the Paycheck Fairness Act “clogs up the legal system,” hampers employers, and hurts the economy. It took him about 90 seconds to tell her that equal pay for equal work has been the law of the land since 1963 – and that he supports the law in principle and championed women in his own business. She didn’t seem entirely convinced.

Johnson’s business-mindedness has put him at odds with many of his more political colleagues. He is famous – or infamous – for his constant laments in the Senate Republican conference about the lack of “strategy” on legislation. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is known for his secretive nature and private deliberations; if he had a strategy, he’d be unlikely to share it with his colleagues. “He is obsessed with strategy,” a top Republican strategist says of Johnson, who invites his fellow Republican senators to  regular strategy dinners and, according to two GOP sources, stood up during a donor presentation in New York City before the 2014 midterm election to tell NRSC leaders, “You have no strategy.”

“I think it’s fair to say, I’m not Mitch McConnell’s favorite senator,” Johnson says. “When you come from a business background, you’re always planning,” Johnson tells me. “Good businesses are run based around strategic thinking, strategic planning, laying things out, doing a ‘SWOT’ analysis – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats. And you get thrown into the political environment in Washington, D.C., and, let’s face it, the vast majority of members are just worrying about their reelection, they’re all independent contractors.”

Johnson is a team player. In the run-up to the 2014 midterms, according to an NRSC source, he offered up virtually “every penny” in his campaign account if it meant helping Republicans secure a Senate majority. Many of his colleagues, says the source, were far stingier even though they had much more money in their campaign coffers.

If Johnson is the victim of a lack of politesse, Feingold has been able to reap the benefits of a career spent in politics. He has raised more money – over $15.5 million — than any other Senate candidate in a competitive race, most of it from donors outside the state of Wisconsin. His financial advantage allowed him to pummel Johnson on the air with negative ads, which took their toll. He also entered the race in 2015 not only with greater name recognition, but also a higher approval rating, than Johnson. In November of last year, Feingold boasted a 43 percent approval rating in a Marquetty University poll, while 36 percent of voters said they had an unfavorable view of him and 22 percent had no view at all. Johnson’s numbers were upside down: Twenty-seven percent of voters viewed him favorably, 38 percent unfavorably, and 35 percent didn’t know enough to say.

That’s in part owing to the fact that Scott Walker and Paul Ryan have dominated political news in Wisconsin for the past several years. “Anybody not named Scott Walker or Paul Ryan had a pretty hard time breaking through over the past four or five years,” says Graul, the GOP strategist. An aggressive, positive ad campaign, he says, has helped to “put some meat on the bones of who Ron Johnson is as a person,” and Johnson’s numbers are now right-side-up, 34-32, though by a smaller margin than Feingold. And he remains the lesser-known candidate. 

#related#The decisive factor in the race might be that, while swing voters in the state may favor Clinton over Trump, they also appear to want a congressional check on a Clinton presidency. That would help to explain why, while one would expect Republican Senate candidates to be going down with the Trump Titanic, the fates of many are actually improving. “Clinton is surging, but down-ballot Democrats are losing ground,” the website FiveThirtyEight reported on Thursday. The difficulty for Johnson, who has endorsed Trump, is that he can’t make the case explicitly. Many of the voters he needs want Trump to win, and arguing for a check on a Clinton presidency is ground on which he simply cannot tread.

But Johnson’s best shot is for others make that case on his behalf – and to count on voters to split their tickets in November. Given recent historical trends, that seems unlikely. That said, this election has upended a lot of them.

Editor’s Note: This piece has been amended since its initial publication.

– Eliana Johnson is National Review’s Washington editor.

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