By Jessica Taylor - 12/04/14 06:00 AM EST
Sen. Ron JohnsonRon JohnsonDem Senate candidate: Foundation should ‘probably’ shutter if Clinton wins Senate Dems' campaign arm knocks GOP for Trump support GOP chairmen subpoena tech firms tied to Clinton's email server MORE (R-Wis.) isn’t afraid of a rematch with former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) in 2016.
Johnson, a huge target for Democrats hoping to win back the Senate majority in two years, is seen as one of the most vulnerable GOP incumbents in what Republicans realize could be a tough year for their party.
Along with Sens. Mark KirkMark KirkWhite House dismisses GOP senator's likening of Obama to 'drug dealer in chief' The Trail 2016: Focus on the Foundation White House: 0M Iran payment wasn’t ransom MORE (R-Ill.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Johnson represents a state Democrats have repeatedly won in presidential years. And in 2016, a Democratic White House contender will be at the top of the ticket, generating a different electorate than the one that made Johnson a winner in 2010.
“There’s no doubt about it that it’s going to be a challenge, and I think I will be a target of Democrats and the left, it’s kind of obvious,” Johnson told The Hill Wednesday in an interview in his Capitol Hill office.
He believes he’d match up well against Feingold, whom he defeated in a tight race four years ago with 51.9 percent of the vote. Democrats and Republicans alike in the state expect him to run again.
“You’ve got two totally different individuals with two totally different ideas of government,” Johnson said.
“I’m not looking to grow government. Russ Feingold — he’s got this belief in government. He was the deciding vote in ObamaCare, and he’ll have to answer for that,” he continued, calling the Democrat “dedicated to growing big government.”
Wisconsin Republicans acknowledge beating Feingold again won’t be easy for Johnson.
The former senator, now working for the State Department as an envoy to Africa, is well liked in Wisconsin despite his loss.
“[Johnson’s] going to have a hell of a race,” said Wisconsin Republican strategist Brandon Scholz. “Russ Feingold will not be the Russ Feingold of the last campaign. He will be more worldly, he has stayed out of the fray, he’s not been in the debate on issues and will not have the drag of Obama on him. It will be hard to wrap Russ Feingold in an Obama agenda.”
Johnson was labeled a Tea Party conservative in the 2010 campaign; the Democrats hope this will be a weight on him in 2016.
“Ron Johnson’s irresponsible brand of extremism led to the government shutdown last year and his subservience to the rigid ideology of the Tea Party is one of the many reasons he’s going to lose reelection in 2016,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Justin Barasky.
Johnson isn’t crazy about being pigeonholed, something he blames on the media.
“I don’t want to be labeled anything,” he said. “If you want to put a label on me, I would call myself a conservative that’s a realist.”
But he’s hardly running from the image.
“I fully embrace the Tea Party movement,” he said. “I believe Americans are taxed enough already, plus the people at the grassroots level involved in the Tea Party, they’re patriots. They are concerned every bit as much as I am — I sprang out of that.
“I was energized by Americans that realized we are on an unsustainable path with our debt and deficit. I share their belief that ObamaCare is destructive to our freedoms,” he added.
A wealthy plastics manufacturer before his election, Johnson looks and sounds like a businessman.
His neat desk has stacks of file folders and a large accounting calculator with a tape reel.
The policy wonk seems most at home discussing the country’s fiscal problems, not politics.
He’s poised to become chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, a perch he intends to use when Republicans ascend to the majority in the Senate next month.
“We’re approaching this majority with humility, taking the responsibility very seriously, and really looking to find those areas of agreement,” he said.
He mentions regulatory reform and securing the border as issues on which Republicans could reach out to Democrats.
“There shouldn’t be partisan differences in some of these areas,” he said.
He blames Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidDems' Florida Senate primary nears its bitter end Trump haunts McCain's reelection fight 10 most expensive House races MORE (D-Nev.) for the upper chamber’s dysfunction, calling him “a one-man party of no.”
To win in a higher-turnout election, Johnson hopes to tap into the same grassroots support that helped Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) win reelection last month.
“In terms of the election model, it’s going to be very similar. You’re still going to have to rely on a lot of grassroots efforts, rely on our party structure, so the mechanics of the race will be very similar.”
Johnson’s fundraising has raised questions. He had just $670,000 in the bank at the end of September.
“I think Sen. Johnson and his campaign really need to reach out to lots of organizations and people to get them into his campaign,” Scholz said.
In response, Johnson’s office says he’s crisscrossed the state in the last four years, presenting his deficit-busting plan 181 times to 16,744 constituents while conducting 36 telephone-town-halls with more than 426,000 people.
As for the fundraising, he attributes the dearth to competition from Walker and other state legislators, who were targeted in 2012 recalls.
The senator raised some alarm bells in the state when he said in a C-SPAN interview he wouldn’t self-fund his campaign again.
“I made my $9 million investment in this country,” Johnson said last month. “I gave it once, I don’t think I should do it again.”
But he clarified those comments to The Hill, stating that as a sitting senator, he thought he could raise what he needed.
“Bottom line is, I’m going to make sure that I have whatever resources I need, the campaign needs, first of all to defend myself, but to hopefully convey a more positive message, get the truth out, get Wisconsinites out,” he said.