At Lambeau Field on Sunday afternoon, as Senator Ron Johnson mingled with the crowd — enjoying a brat and beer, chatting with fellow Packers fans, and taking selfies — he looked like a man at ease. This should not have been the case. Various outlets, including The Hill, continue to rank Johnson’s Wisconsin seat as the second-most likely to flip on Tuesday, right behind the embattled Illinois senator Mark Kirk’s. In the event of a Clinton victory, Democrats will need a net gain of only four seats to regain the Senate majority, and the outcome of the Wisconsin Senate race may very well determine control of the upper chamber.
Despite the race’s high stakes and its closeness, there is good reason for Johnson to be optimistic. The most recent Marquette University poll, considered by many to be the state’s premier public political poll, had Johnson and former Senator Russ Feingold in a virtual dead heat. Johnson is leading independents by six points and outperforming the top of the ticket, while Feingold is now underperforming Clinton for the first time. And the momentum is all Johnson’s: Marquette recorded a 14-point lead for Feingold as late as September 28.
Johnson has made up so much ground in such a short time with a smart, relentlessly focused effort. An internal memorandum obtained from the campaign reveals a strategy that takes to heart the lessons learned from past campaign failures, including 2012, when the national GOP focused almost exclusively on television advertising to the detriment of building a sustained ground game. According to the memo, the campaign has made over 3 million voter contacts. This sort of personal voter outreach is essential in a divided purple state such as Wisconsin, where the conservative base rallies behind bold reformers such as Governor Scott Walker, Speaker Paul Ryan, and even Senator Ted Cruz, while the progressive base advances the careers of firebrands such as Senator Tammy Baldwin and Representative Mark Pocan.
Historically, Wisconsin Senate races have not been kind to the GOP. In 2012, popular former Governor Tommy Thompson was unable to defeat Baldwin, considered by many to be one of the most liberal members of Congress. The last Republican to hold Baldwin’s seat was none other than Joseph McCarthy, who died in office in 1957. Prior to Johnson, Senator Bob Kasten, who served two terms in the 1980s, was the only Republican to have sat in the state’s other seat since 1963.
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Because of this long history of Democratic control, many, including Feingold, viewed Johnson’s election in the Tea Party wave of 2010 as nothing more than an anomaly. Democrats, who can usually rely on elevated turnout in Madison and Milwaukee during presidential years, figured they could win back “Feingold’s seat” in 2016.
So it was nothing short of amazing to witness Johnson happily working the crowds on a beautiful, sun-drenched Green Bay afternoon, just a month after he’d been written off by the national pundits and his own party bosses. At one point, the National Republican Senatorial Committee had canceled millions in television advertising. But now, with the race tightening, the NRSC was once again invested in the state, and the third-ranking Senate Republican, John Thune, had come with one of the caucus’s rising stars, Tom Cotton, to enjoy beer and brats and campaign for Johnson outside Lambeau.
While a Johnson win could potentially save the GOP majority, it would represent so much more than a short-term political victory.
When asked why Johnson’s reelection matters from a national standpoint, Cotton noted that “Wisconsin is critical to our Senate majority, but it’s more than that. Ron Johnson’s a great senator. He’s good for the people of Wisconsin and he’s good for this country. . . . Russ Feingold wasn’t.” Governor Walker, also in attendance, echoed Cotton’s sentiments. “I think this will not just define who represents Wisconsin in the Senate for the next six years but really whether or not there is a majority,” he said. “If you think about things like Obamacare, if you think about dealing with ISIS, if you think about the fundamental difference between people who believe the government is the answer to our problems versus people who believe in the individual, Ron Johnson believes in the people. Senator Feingold will go back to the same old failed policies of more government, more spending, and more taxes.”
After enjoying a brat myself, my kids in tow, I had the opportunity to chat with Senator Johnson. He framed the election as one where “if people value freedom, if they value their Second Amendment rights, if they want to keep more of their own hard-earned money in their pocket, then I’m the guy to vote for.” And he minced no words when describing his opponent as “a complete phony.” He noted that as he was working the crowds, voters were telling him “that guy is a big liar” and that “they are seeing through his phoniness, they’re seeing what a hypocrite he is, they are seeing that his relentlessly negative and false campaign against me is full of just lies and distortions.” That sort of reaction gave him encouragement.
Regarding the national impact of his race, he noted that his election may be “the difference between having the Supreme Court flip, the difference between having the Senate majority flip,” and emphasized what two years of Democratic control would mean for the institution. “The Senate was completely broken under Harry Reid. We’ve actually reconstituted the committees. We’re actually passing legislation. We’re getting results. I’ve gotten a lot of results as the chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs; 83 bills have passed out of my committee and 20 have been signed into law.”
While a Johnson win could potentially save the GOP majority, it would represent so much more than a short-term political victory, because in today’s climate, the differences between a “politician” and an “officeholder” seem especially acute.
A politician such as Feingold, who has spent nearly his entire professional career serving as an elected official, can too quickly become numb to the events swirling around him. Feingold has never seemed too concerned with actual legislative achievements, he has never expressed any alarm at the ballooning national debt, and he has never been all that disturbed with the general direction of the country. Politicians are concerned with the accumulation of power, advancement up the leadership chain, and the refusal to look outside a narrow ideological lens. To be fair, this can and too often does describe individuals on both sides of the political aisle, but Feingold is a particularly egregious case.
On the other hand, Johnson is an officeholder, entirely comfortable with the thought of representing his constituents for a limited period of time. He has made clear that he didn’t campaign hard in the traditional sense following his 2010 election because he thought he would serve for only six years, working with a Republican president to implement the real change this country so desperately needs. The 2012 election obviously did not turn out as he’d hoped, so he reconsidered his 2016 plans. He emphasized in our conversation that if “we can fix these problems structurally, then I’m happy to go home in 2023.”
In other words, Johnson is simply seeking one more term to attempt to enact the big changes he has focused on the past six years. Our national debt continues to increase, now approaching $20 trillion. Our position abroad has been further diminished. International terrorism is now domestic terrorism. America’s economic competitiveness is being eroded by an uncompetitive tax structure and an ever-expanding regulatory state, particularly in manufacturing, Johnson’s background. And Obamacare continues to be a disaster, with premiums exploding and insurers dropping out of the exchanges.
#related#There was something different in the air Sunday afternoon. A typical November Packers home game would feature cold, rain, or possibly even snow. And in a presidential-election cycle, a Wisconsin United States Senate race should be all but guaranteed to be a win for Democrats. But yesterday, it almost hit 70 degrees mid-afternoon in Green Bay. And Republican senator Ron Johnson was happily mingling with voters, ready to defend his seat come Tuesday.
In less than 48 hours, we will know whether that defense was successful.
— Jake Curtis previously served as an Ozaukee County supervisor, policy director for state senator Duey Stroebel, and a specially appointed assistant district attorney for Milwaukee County.