Vulnerable Republican seeks edge on homeland security

Vulnerable Republican seeks edge on homeland security
© Greg Nash

The chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee is looking to highlight national security to save his straggling campaign and preserve one of the most vulnerable Republican seats.

Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonGun proposal picks up GOP support GOP lawmaker to unveil bill banning gun bump stocks Senate Homeland Security chairman backs bump-stock ban after Las Vegas shootings MORE’s (R-Wis.) rematch against ex-Sen. Russ Feingold (D) has been largely focused on the economy so far, but his campaign is hinting that it will spotlight security issues amid renewed concerns about terrorism in the U.S., following this month’s violence in Orlando, Fla.

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“The contrast on national security in this race could not be more clear,” spokesman Brian Reisinger said in a statement to The Hill.

The battle sets up a contrast between the sitting Homeland Security chairman and one of the Senate’s most prominent civil liberties advocates in recent years.

“Sen. Feingold voted against our security time and again during his 18 years in Washington, even abandoning a law meant to protect local communities from foreign ‘lone wolf’ terrorists — how can he be trusted to protect us now?” said Reisinger.

Johnson is one of the Senate’s most vulnerable Republicans, in what is generally believed to be a bad year for the GOP.

Feingold has been ahead of Johnson in every poll since February, sometimes by double digits.

And despite his status as a sitting senator, polls show Johnson may be less well known than his challenger, who served in the Senate for 18 years before being knocked off in 2010.

“The Johnson campaign needs to do something,” said Barry Burden, the head of the elections research center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “I think they’re looking for a way to claw back to make this a competitive race.”

The campaign may have sensed a vulnerability in Feingold, who was the only senator to have voted against the Patriot Act in 2001. While in office, he was known as one of the more vocal critics of government security powers.

But his skepticism has become more popular in the years since 2001, as the public backlash has grown to the government’s expanded powers under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama.

Yet it still poses serious obstacles for the former lawmaker, especially as it concerns terrorism, on the heels of killings inspired by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Orlando and San Bernardino, Calif. A CNN poll this week found that 71 percent of the country said that acts of terrorism are very or somewhat likely to occur in the U.S. in coming weeks, higher than at any point since March of 2003.

Johnson, meanwhile, pushed for the U.S. to clamp down on its visa procedures following attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, and this week advocated for a plan aiming to bar terrorists from buying firearms.

Both camps look eager to play up the differences between the two candidates.

“Ron Johnson is pushing real solutions to keep our country safe, including reforming our visa waiver program, securing the border, protecting critical infrastructure, and guarding against cyber attacks,” Reisinger said in his statement. “He's also using his committee to investigate the threat of Islamic terrorism.”

“It’s a conversation we’re more than willing to have,” retorted a Feingold staffer, noting that Johnson supports putting U.S. troops on the ground to fight ISIS.

“We saw what that looked like last time, I don’t think anybody in this country wants to go down that path again, except potentially Johnson and his allies.”

The issue of national security has already begun to poke its head into the race.

In April, a pro-Johnson super-PAC released a TV ad noting Feingold’s vote against the Patriot Act and questioning his commitment to security.

“Now, weakness has brought terrorists to America, putting us all at risk,” a narrator intoned.

In response, Feingold released an ad in which a veteran praises his “tough, realistic plan to protect America.”  

Johnson has yet to fully hammer the point, but offered a preview in a new ad released this week.

“I’m working hard to keep Wisconsin prosperous and America safe,” the senator said, while promoting his business background.

Yet it’s unclear how much the move will change the dynamics of the race, watchers said.

“Absent a major terrorist attack I don’t think that national security is going to overshadow economic questions, or party ID questions — the usual fundamentals in an election,” said Julia Azari, a political science professor at Marquette University.

“National security isn’t at the bottom of the list, but it is a ways down, I think, for many voters.”

The Senate race is also very likely to be affected by the matchup at the top of the ballot, where Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonChris Murphy’s profile rises with gun tragedies DNC, RNC step up cyber protections Gun proposal picks up GOP support MORE has a solid lead over Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pens op-ed on kindergartners learning tech Bharara, Yates tamp down expectations Mueller will bring criminal charges Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open MORE.

“The thing that I think is probably the most important factor in the race is beyond their control,” said Mordecai Lee, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “And that is that Johnson got elected in an off-year election, when you have a lower turnout which skews Republican. Whereas this race is a presidential year, which has a higher turnout and therefore skews Democratic.

“It could well be that Sen. Johnson winning six years ago was perhaps the luck of when it occurred,” Lee said. “And the results of this election may again be based on just the luck of when it’s occurring.”