Political neophyte challenges Feingold

Republican Ron Johnson has never run for public office, but polls show him almost even with three-term incumbent Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.).


A Rasmussen Reports survey had Feingold getting 46 percent of the vote while Johnson had 45. An incumbent polling under 50 percent at this point in the campaign is usually a reason for concern.

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Johnson made his first trip to Washington this week to meet with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and members of the Senate Republican Conference.

“Literally, three weeks ago I was a full-time businessperson,” Johnson, a successful plastics manufacturer, told The Hill. “This is not my life’s ambition.”

Johnson had a quick rise from neophyte candidate to GOP favorite for the nomination. He announced his run less than a week before the Republican Party’s state convention last month and was the surprise winner with 64 percent. Former state Commerce Secretary Dick Leinenkugel, who was considered the favorite, dropped out of the race after the convention and endorsed Johnson.

Johnson still faces businessman Dave Westlake in the September primary, but Johnson is expected to clinch the nomination.

Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, had been courting former Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) to run. But since Thompson announced his decision to remain out of politics, the NRSC has promoted Johnson’s candidacy.

Johnson hopes to capitalize on his business résumé and the country’s anti-incumbent mood to unseat Feingold.

“People really are looking for somebody with an entirely different perspective here,” Johnson said.

Feingold’s campaign is countering that by claming Johnson stands “with corporate special interests like insurance companies.”

“Ron Johnson wants to repeal healthcare for kids with pre-existing conditions; take away tax credits for small businesses; cut Medicare and increase prescription drug costs for seniors; and hand over more control of everyone’s healthcare to the insurance companies,” Trevor Miller, a spokesman for the Feingold campaign, said in an e-mail. “In fact, his vision for health insurance reform is to have patients go wait in line at Wal-Mart for healthcare.”

It was the passage of the healthcare reform bill that prompted Johnson to run.

“The final straw for me is when they passed the healthcare bill,” he said. “I view it as such a huge assault on our freedom. It will lead to a single-payer system. A government-run, Canadian-style system. That will result in rationed care.

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“As the facts get out on this healthcare bill, that could certainly be one of the big issues in this race.”

Johnson brushed up on national policy during his visit to Washington, making a stop at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “That’s where I mainly got my policy briefing,” he said. “I really appreciated that — that was very informative.”

Johnson has already faced some controversy in the campaign. Democrats seized on his statement that it was “very troubling” that BP had to pay $20 billion into an escrow fund to resolve claims relating to its oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Feingold camp called his statements “political double-talk.”

“Ron Johnson wants people to believe that he supports holding BP accountable while at the same time he opposes the BP fund for victims of this disaster,” John Kraus, a Feingold strategist, said in a statement.

Johnson said he isn’t opposed to BP paying compensation.

“The only thing I found troubling is the fact that we weren’t using the rule of law to impose penalties on BP and do it that way as opposed to kind of strong-arming them into this,” he said. “I do appreciate the rule of law.

“I make no apologies for BP,” he added. “It’s been proven how they were totally negligent in this thing. By trying to save themselves $10 million, it’s going to cost them billions, but it’s going to cost the folks down in the Gulf hundreds of millions if not billions themselves in terms of damage.”

Johnson also faces questions about his appearance before a state Senate committee in January where he opposed passing legislation that was aimed at making it easier for victims of childhood sexual abuse to sue their abusers.

“This bill could actually have the perverse effect of leading to additional victims of sexual abuse,” he argued, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

“It was a well-intended bill that just didn’t accomplish the intention,” he said. “There were very severe unintended consequences, and that was the only point I made in my testimony.”

Another reason Republicans have been attracted to Johnson’s candidacy is that he has the financial resources to self-fund his campaign.

“Over 31 years of very hard work, I’ve tucked away, outside of business, enough money to get my message out,” he said. “If I have to, I’ll spend it all.”

Feingold spent some $10 million on his race in 2004, Johnson said, noting he’ll have to spend something similar this year. “It’s probably somewhere in that ballpark.”

Johnson won’t have to file his first Federal Election Commission report until July 15.

Mike Lillis contributed to this article.