Emboldened Democrats eye Ron Johnson amid new controversies

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) is facing a slew of negative headlines ahead of his reelection bid later this year, potentially complicating what was already expected to be a tough race for the two-term senator.

Johnson ignited controversy last week when he suggested that “wokeness” and critical race theory were the cause of recent mass shootings in the U.S. Additionally, the senator hit back at report from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel saying he has been using tax dollars to travel between Washington, D.C., and a Florida vacation home, calling it a “fully coordinated attack.”

The headlines have given Democrats running to replace Johnson fodder ahead of the general election as the Wisconsin senator’s popularity declines in the state and have them wondering if the Senate race could be a rare bright spot in a year expected to favor Republicans.

But Johnson is also no stranger to controversy and has overcome it on two previous occasions.

“Ron Johnson has been underestimated probably as much as any politician out there,” said former GOP strategist Brandon Scholz, who is based in Wisconsin.

The incumbent senator has stirred controversy with his past comments on the coronavirus vaccine, the 2020 presidential election results, racial justice protests and other issues.

“I think his opponents pretty much have a free ride,” Scholz said. “All of the attention is essentially focused on Johnson.”

A Marquette University Law School poll released in April reflected the national mood Republicans have felt confident about going into the midterm elections. Fifty-six percent of respondents said the state was on the wrong track, while 69 percent said they were very concerned about inflation, according to the poll. President Biden holds a 43 percent favorable rating and 53 percent unfavorable in the state. Wisconsin’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers, holds a 47 percent favorable rating and a 42 percent unfavorable rate.

But the poll showed the state’s incumbent GOP senator with low approval ratings as well. Johnson’s favorable rating sat at 36 percent, while his unfavorable rating came in at 46 percent.

The poll also found that 39 percent of respondents said that Johnson “cares about people like me,” while 50 percent said that statement “does not describe him.”

“Wisconsinites have a sense that [Johnson] doesn’t carry their values, that he’s rich himself, that he carries the wealthy and corporate special interests,” said JB Poersch, the president of the Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic group.

“They really don’t truly see him as being for them,” he continued. “I think it’s generally something he’s had to deal with for a long time, but I think it’s more true now because he’s been in Washington for 12 years.”

Democrats have particularly hit Johnson over his support for former President Trump’s 2017 tax legislation, arguing that the bill ultimately benefitted Johnson. Republicans dispute that.

“When you talk to every small-business member in this state, owners and operators and others, that wasn’t a Ron Johnson special,” Scholz said. “That was a small-business tax break in a massive tax package that gave gazillions of tax breaks all over the place.”

The 2022 campaign cycle is not the first time Johnson has had to deal with low favorability ratings. Over the past two years, Johnson’s favorability ratings have fluctuated between the low 30s and mid-40s, getting as low as 32 percent in August of 2020, according to data from Marquette.

And Johnson remains popular among Wisconsin Republicans. An analysis of past Marquette University polling on Johnson in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that the senator’s support has risen from 50 percent to 57 percent among Republicans over the last six years. The analysis also found that Johnson’s name recognition has grown, with only 20 percent of voters saying they didn’t know the senator or didn’t have an opinion of him. Six years ago, 40 percent of voters said they didn’t know him or did not have an opinion of him.

Democrats argue that while Johnson is appealing to his conservative and Republican bases, he will end up struggling to gain support among moderates and independents.

“He hasn’t done enough to ensure the middle,” Poersch said. “His language in terms of Democrats, moderates, progressives is so nasty. It’s not somebody who’s inviting people in.”

“I think he’s counting on a base victory,” he added.

Republicans argue that the way around this is for Johnson to focus on what they say are the failures of Democrats on kitchen table issues, like inflation, gas prices, the supply chain crisis and the border.

“If Republicans and Ron Johnson can talk to those issues that are important to the average person who is independent-minded but [say] ‘Hey, this is affecting me personally,’ I think that will help his chances,” said Stephanie Soucek, the chairwoman of the Door County, Wis., GOP.

But while Johnson’s popularity among his core base of supporters may be high, the level of Democratic disdain for him has also risen.

“Is Johnson a motivator for Democrats? Yes, I think he is because he’s a known quantity. He’s polarizing,” Poersch said.

The Wisconsin general election is expected to be one of the most closely watched races in November. It also stands to be one of the tightest, with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report calling it a “toss-up.”

“Whoever wins in the U.S Senate race and in the gubernatorial race, I think you’re looking at a point or two that divides the winners and losers,” Scholz said. “When you get to the general, it’s kind of hand-to-hand combat.”

The Democratic primary is not until Aug. 9, but the party is already setting its sights on Johnson. Earlier last month, Majority Forward, the nonprofit arm of the Senate Majority PAC, went up on statewide broadcast, cable, satellite and digital as part of a $2.7 million advertising campaign. At the end of the month, the group booked an additional $3.6 million in airtime.

The Democrats vying to oust Johnson have also launched their own attacks on him. The four top primary candidates went on the offensive against Johnson after his comments about the cause of recent mass shootings.

Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (D) said Johnson “and his gun lobby-funded colleagues are the reason we haven’t been able to pass commonsense gun reform,” while Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry said “doing nothing has resulted in one thing: more dead children and the people of Wisconsin are tired of having a do-nothing Senator in Washington.”

Wisconsin state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski hit Republicans, like Johnson, who she said are “bought and paid for by the gun lobby.” Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson said Johnson “is bearing false witness when he refuses to name the cause of these mass tragedies.”

But despite the negative headlines against Johnson, Republicans maintain that the senator should not be underestimated in November.

“This idea that Ron Johnson is one foot in the grave and they’ve got the casket ready to go I think is a tad premature,” Scholz said.

Tags Ron Johnson Ron Johnson Wisconsin Wisconsin Senate race

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