Politics & Policy

Why Ron Johnson’s Reelection Is So Important

Sen. Ron Johnson at CPAC 2011. (Reuters photo: Larry Downing)
Senator Johnson is a throwback to a better era of legislator. His defeat would be a loss for Wisconsin and the nation.

Wisconsin’s Senate race is ranked by many as one of the most contested in the country and one of the most likely to flip. Two weeks ago, Marquette University released a poll showing Senator Ron Johnson behind former senator Russ Feingold, 47 percent to 41 percent, among likely voters. The result, coming so late in the campaign, was all the more troubling for Johnson given that Donald Trump, who handily lost Wisconsin’s primary to Ted Cruz in April, actually outperformed the senator in Marquette’s poll: Among likely voters, Hillary Clinton led Trump by a mere two points, 44 percent to 42 percent.

The reality of a Clinton or Trump presidency makes continued Republican control of the upper chamber all the more important, and a Johnson loss would make it that much more difficult to achieve. It would also be a shame for Wisconsin and the nation.

Anyone who has had the chance to listen to Johnson knows he is a serious legislator who grasps the perilous position the country is in. When he talks about the national debt, one gets the sense he is actually internalizing the rate at which it is in increasing every second. Many members of Congress pay lip service to reining in spending, but Johnson will often talk at length about the debt, which, at $19 trillion, is now almost double what it was when President Obama first took office. He appreciates the grave threat it poses to American economic growth and national security.

As the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Johnson is tasked with addressing some of the nation’s most pressing national-security issues. And as the former president of a large Wisconsin manufacturer, he may very well be the only member of Congress who goes through a detailed SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis of the Federal government in his stump speech.

It is essential that the voters of Wisconsin see the candidates for who they really are. Johnson is a true citizen legislator. He had never held public office before his 2010 election to the Senate. To that point, he’d lived a relatively simple life in Oshkosh, Wisc., running his company, raising his family, and contributing to his community. Following passage of the Affordable Care Act, he embarked on a personal crusade, talking to Tea Party groups about the life-saving care one of his daughters received and how things could have been different with a government-controlled health-care system. In one of his more memorable lines, he proclaimed, “Now that they’ve passed Obamacare, our freedom is on life support!”

Inspired, he personally poured millions of dollars into a 2010 campaign to unseat Feingold. Over the last six years, one of the main criticisms of Johnson has been that he doesn’t focus enough on the political side of the job, because he’s too busy holding hearings and diving into policy. But there’s a good reason for that: He seriously considered not running for a second term, before deciding that it was important to put forward the strongest Republican candidate in a difficult presidential year, and that he was that candidate.

Feingold, a man who, other than a brief stint at a Wisconsin law firm, had never held a private-sector job in his adult life before he lost in 2010, represents almost everything Johnson is not.

Johnson is a true citizen legislator. He had never held public office before his 2010 election to the Senate.

First, Feingold is a hypocrite. Despite spending 18 years in the Senate, he managed to accomplish very little, with the one exception of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law. Even that signature achievement was partly undone by the courts, which struck down many of the law’s provisions as unconstitutional. And Feingold’s actions since leaving office would seem to suggest he never cared deeply about campaign-finance reform in the first place. The aim of McCain-Feingold, or the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, was to address the role of soft money and the proliferation of issue-advocacy ads in elections. But almost immediately upon leaving public office, Feingold set up Progressives United, a Political Action Committee focused on “directly and indirectly supporting candidates who stand up for our progressive ideals.” The only problem was that the PAC did no such thing. In fact, over the last four years, the PAC contributed just 5 percent of its total intake to other candidates. The remaining 95 percent funded the group’s efforts to raise more money, along with salaries and consulting fees for Feingold and a handful of top aides. Even Wisconsin Democrats weren’t provided access to the Feingold PAC money, despite Feingold’s repeated promises to support many of them in their campaigns. The former senator has thus spent the last six years engaging in just the kind of behavior he railed against when fighting for passage of the most famous law bearing his name.

Second, Feingold is a polarizing extremist. The Left is constantly attempting to paint every conservative Republican as an extremist who wishes to turn the country back to the 19th Century, but it is in fact politicians such as Feingold who always refuse to consider concessions to those who may not share their ideological persuasion. The liberal media has for many years attempted to paint Feingold — a man who once argued that the decision to abort an accidentally delivered baby (i.e. to commit infanticide, in most people’s eyes) should be left to a doctor — as a moderate voice of reason. But no one who is paying any attention should be fooled. Meanwhile, the supposedly extreme Johnson has for years been involved in the Joseph Project, an effort to connect job-seekers in inner-city Milwaukee with suburban manufacturers looking for consistent labor. Though it has little upside for his political prospects given Milwaukee’s liberal bent, he has committed himself to the project, because he believes in grassroots solutions to the causes of the city’s July unrest.

Finally, Feingold epitomizes the systemic problems surrounding incumbency, wherein long-serving members develop a sense of ownership over a seat. Feingold is fond of reminding voters that the seat he once held previously belonged to Gaylord Nelson, the Wisconsin Democratic icon. The clear implication is that 2010 was simply a fluke, and it is up to Feingold to reclaim a “Democratic” seat this year. Many politicians retire from public life following a defeat, but not Feingold, who almost immediately set up his PAC and then took on another résumé-building, public-sector job as special envoy for the African Great Lakes. At a time when Washington, D.C. needs more individuals who view public service as a short-term calling rather than a lifelong, ambition-quenching endeavor, Feingold doesn’t fit the bill.

The 2016 election cycle has certainly been a disheartening one. Some conservatives remain concerned about Trump. And as the Marquette polling suggests, some Trump supporters remain uncommitted to Johnson. It’s hard to fathom why. There is simply no ambiguity in the case of “Ron” vs. “Russ”. While Feingold represents the worst of qualities in politics — hypocrisy, extremism, and entitlement — Johnson is a throwback to a different, more principled generation of politicians. No legislator is perfect, but over the last six years, he has left little doubt that what motivates him is changing the current trajectory of our nation for the better. Given the stakes, it’s vitally important for the voters of Wisconsin to reelect him in November.

Jake Curtis is a Milwaukee attorney. He previously served as the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ chief legal counsel under Governor Scott Walker and as an associate counsel at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

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