Democrats scrutinize Ron Johnson’s every move in effort to rethink race

Democrats scrutinize Ron Johnson's every move in effort to rethink race

MILWAUKEE — Democrats have attacked Sen. Ron Johnson for years for making outrageous comments, advancing conspiracy theories and what they consider as belittling the concerns of his constituents.  

But as Johnson pursues a third term in the Senate, Democrats determined to replace him in office are pursuing a new strategy that one operative succinctly summed up as, “Crazy isn’t enough.” 

This time, Democrats say, things will be different. They’re picking apart every radio show and podcast he’s participated in. They’re recording any town halls. They’re scrutinizing Johnson’s now lengthier tenure in Washington. They’re not just exploring the relationship with his donors, but featuring some of the best-known Wisconsin big-money Republicans in ads.

And all of it is to collect evidence that they say underscores a theme that the senator, who has gone back on his own vow to retire after two terms, has grown out of step with Wisconsin voters, according to more than half a dozen interviews with Democrats familiar with the strategy and a review of ads and messaging in the race so far. Last week, Johnson was among the Republicans who voted against capping the cost of insulin and said in a radio show that funding for Medicare and Social Security should be reviewed every year rather than be done automatically — both of the new developments Democratic strategists say will appear in ads. 

“They’re going to just stick it to Johnson with everything he did, everything he’s said, every vote he ever cast,” said Brandon Scholz, a longtime Wisconsin Republican strategist. 


Democrats confirmed as much. 

“Ron Johnson’s entire record will be under scrutiny in this race,” said Amanda Sherman, a spokeswoman with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, including what she called “rigging the system” to benefit himself and spreading misinformation. “Johnson’s out of touch and he’s changed.” 

Voters cast their ballots Wednesday at a polling place inside a library in Oconomowoc, Wis.Scott Olson / Getty Images

To Republicans, the idea is laughable that a raft of new ads could convince Wisconsin voters that somehow Johnson cares more about Washington than his own state or that he isn’t doing things like scrutinizing the budget every year with a fine-toothed comb. 

Interviews with more than a dozen Wisconsin Republicans reveal a party confident they’ve seen every trick in the book against Johnson — and seen each of them fail.

“They’ve been trying to make him into a corrupt businessman for a decade, and it hasn’t worked,” said a former Johnson aide who was not authorized to speak on the record.

Scholz added, “This notion that Republicans are going to drop Ron Johnson and go for [his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov.] Mandela Barnes? What version of weed have you been smoking?” 

As for Johnson’s often controversial comments, Republicans shrug off most of them as utterances that outrage only Democrats and the media. Several Wisconsin operatives with knowledge of the political tracking cited focus groups with would-be voters that found a consistent response to a controversial statement the senator had made: Johnson must be doing something right if he’s ticking off that many people. 

The interviews with Republicans also reveal a party that’s brazen in its confidence that it can paint Barnes as too radical and liberal for Wisconsin, a state almost equally divided between Democrats and Republicans with just a fraction of independents and suburban swing voters. 

Democrats are also leaning heavily on drawing contrasts between Barnes, a 35-year-old progressive seeking to be the state’s first Black senator, and the 67-year-old incumbent. Johnson has so far only run a Senate campaign against Russ Feingold, the former Wisconsin senator, once in 2010 and again in 2016. In speeches, Barnes describes himself as someone who, as the son of a United Auto Worker, knows the difficulties of the working class and contrasts that with Johnson, who he contends has abandoned Wisconsin for Washington.  

Wisconsin Democratic Senate candidate Mandela Barnes
Wisconsin Democratic Senate candidate Mandela Barnes speaks at a rally at John Marshall High School in Milwaukee on July 15. Morry Gash / AP file

Some of the messaging was on display in Barnes’ victory speech before a high-energy crowd Tuesday night. As he claimed his nomination, Barnes pumped his arm into the air, declaring it was time for a change. He then accused Johnson of serving his donors and losing touch with people in Wisconsin’s communities. 

“We don’t have enough people in the U.S. Senate who actually know what we’re going through,” Barnes told a cheering crowd. “We don’t have enough people in the U.S. Senate who actually have a working-class experience.”

And Democrats, too, were bracing for what’s to come as the general election kicks off.

“The dog whistling will become Klaxon air raid sirens by Labor Day,” predicted Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, who was among the Democratic primary contenders who dropped out of the race two weeks ago.

As of Tuesday evening, nearly $50 million in Senate general election ads had been reserved between August and the election, the bulk coming from national groups, according to the advertising data firm AdImpact. Democrats had $25 million booked while Republicans had reserved about $22 million. It’s early, and the numbers are expected to only grow in the Dairy State. Right now, the projected spending on TV ads makes the race the fifth most expensive in the country, with Georgia leading the pack at about $120 million reserved for that time period, according to AdImpact records. 

Republicans point to a now well-publicized photo of Barnes holding up a T-shirt that reads “Abolish ICE,” past statements Barnes has made about police funding, and the mere fact that liberal Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., were among those to endorse him. (Barnes has said he does not support eliminating the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.)

“The Democrats nominated the most liberal candidate they could find,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Chris Hartline, adding that Barnes has supported President Joe Biden “and his agenda wholeheartedly. Wisconsinites are suffering under the Democrats’ agenda and Mandela Barnes would make it worse.” 

Several Wisconsin Democrats privately expressed worry that the primary was far too polite and didn’t prepare Barnes for what they expect to become nasty campaign, with tens of millions of dollars in forthcoming attacks. 

Barnes’ opponents didn’t even take the battle all the way to the primary election, with the three most viable candidates dropping out two weeks prior, giving the lieutenant governor a running start.

But other Democrats say Barnes is more than familiar with the bare-knuckle brawling that comes with going up against Wisconsin Republicans.

They say Barnes knows what’s coming, and they’re predicting it won’t be pretty and that Barnes will be ready.  

“No one is more up to the task than Mandela,” Nelson said. “He’s a fighter. He beat Scott Walker. He’ll take care of Johnson, too.”

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