Lake Geneva, Wisconsin
During a two-hour fundraising cruise in southeastern Wisconsin on Sunday, July 18, Republicans feasted on bratwurst, sauerkraut, and beer as they chatted about their good chances of sending a Republican to the U.S. Senate for the first time since 1986. Polls show a tight race developing between Democrat Russ Feingold, the three-term incumbent, and Ron Johnson, an Ayn Rand-loving, pro-life Lutheran, plastics manufacturer from Oshkosh. Johnson led Feingold 48 percent to 46 percent in a July 29 Rasmussen poll.
Democrats thought they had dodged a bullet when former Republican governor Tommy Thompson decided in April not to run, but Johnson has emerged as a formidable candidate. First, he doesn’t have Thompson’s baggage of having been both a Washington lobbyist and a Bush administration official. When Johnson delivers brief remarks to the 200 Republicans aboard the boat, he makes it clear he didn’t like the spending spree of the last administration. Republicans were racking up “$300 [or] $400 billion deficits. But now we’re talking $1.5 trillion. And our national debt is $13 trillion. That’s simply unsustainable. It’s intergenerational theft. It’s wrong. It’s immoral. And it’s gotta stop.” The crowd cheers enthusiastically.
Before announcing his candidacy in May, Johnson tested the waters by speaking at Tea Party rallies, where he received a warm response. The successful 55-year-old businessman has less political experience than any GOP Senate candidate in a competitive race this year (almost all have held office at the state or federal level). But Johnson is a “quick study,” says Wisconsin GOP congressman Paul Ryan. “He’s not one of these wealthy guys who decides to run for office one day and doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.” Johnson is personable and rolls off facts, figures, and anecdotes with ease when discussing the issues.
He says the passage of Obama-care compelled him to run. “When it wasn’t defeated, that to me was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Johnson tells me. “I totally want it repealed, and then I just want to do modest, commonsense reforms that don’t cost a lot of money.” His “personal motivation” comes from his family’s reliance on rapid medical advances when his daughter—now a neonatal nurse—had heart surgery as an infant in the 1980s. Obamacare will “lower the quality of care and lead to rationing,” Johnson says. “There’s a reason the premier of Newfoundland came down to America to get his heart surgery.”
Feingold, for his part, would like to talk about anything but health care and the economy. He touts himself as a fiscal conservative and gun rights supporter, who voted against the financial regulation bill. Feingold scoffed at early polls showing Johnson within a couple points, but the senator now appears scared. Known for running positive campaigns with light-hearted ads, Feingold’s first TV spot about Johnson attacked him as a supporter of drilling for oil in the Great Lakes. Factcheck.org called the ad “misleading”—in June, Johnson expressed support for domestic drilling, but it wasn’t clear he meant the Great Lakes. The day before the ad was released, Johnson said he rejects “any and all efforts to drill in the Great Lakes,” but Feingold went ahead with his ad anyway. Johnson retaliated with an ad noting that Feingold had voted against a permanent ban on Great Lakes drilling (the measure was included in the 2005 energy bill, which Feingold opposed on fiscal and environmental grounds). This incident “shows that Russ is very nervous, and it shows that he’s going to run the kind of campaign that he’s never run before,” says Ryan, who considers Feingold a friend.
Johnson calls Feingold’s signature campaign finance reform legislation the “McCain-Feingold incumbent protection act,” and with good reason. In 2004, Feingold outspent his opponent, who had little time to raise money after the September primary, nearly two to one. But Johnson has the money to match Feingold dollar for dollar, attack ad for attack ad. He built a successful plastics manufacturing company with his brother-in-law and is reportedly willing to spend $10 to $15 million of his own money on the race.
None of Feingold’s victories was a landslide; he got 53 percent of the vote in 1992, 51 percent in 1998, and 55 percent in 2004. Facing a strongly anti-Democratic year for the first time, Feingold appears to believe his best hope is to paint Johnson as an extremist. “It’s becoming clear that [Johnson is] the third part of that Rand Paul, Sharron Angle tripartition,” Feingold told Politico in June. “He’s refused to say whether he favors the continuation of Social Security and Medicare. He hasn’t even said he supports the Civil Right Act.”
But unlike the Kentucky and Nevada GOP candidates, Johnson hasn’t committed any big gaffes. Johnson says the suggestion that he doesn’t support the Civil Rights Act is ridiculous, and he’s straightforward about his support for entitlement reform. Johnson calls Paul Ryan “courageous” for trying to solve our fiscal problems and admires senators Jim DeMint, Judd Gregg, and Tom Coburn. “I am serious about tackling these issues,” says Johnson, “but it is not my life’s ambition to be a senator.”
Like such conservative stalwarts, Johnson is primarily interested in fiscal issues, though he doesn’t shy away from other topics as well. On Afghanistan, Johnson says, “You don’t go into war with a timeline. You go into war with a plan to win and a commitment to win.” (Feingold sponsored an amendment to create a timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan that got the support of only 18 senators.) On immigration, Johnson says, “That is the biggest surprise as I’ve traveled all over the state—how much of a hot button the issue is.” People are outraged, he says, that “we’re paying out welfare benefits to people in the country illegally.” (Feingold voted against a measure to stop the federal lawsuit against Arizona’s immigration law.)
Johnson’s biggest liability may be a tendency to speak honestly. Though Democrats blasted him for likening Social Security to a “Ponzi scheme,” Johnson wouldn’t soften his point. “The problem is that Social Security funds have been spent,” he told the Wall Street Journal in July. “They’re gone. I’m just describing the problem.”
Johnson may have opened himself up to an even stronger Democratic line of attack in our conversations. Brett Favre is regarded as a traitor by many Wisconsinites for playing for the Minnesota Vikings. But Johnson, a big Green Bay Packers fan, admits that once the Packers were out of the playoffs last year he was pulling for Favre to win. “He plays the game with such joy,” says Johnson. “I wanted to see Brett Favre win. I took it probably every bit as hard when he threw that interception in the last play of the Viking [playoff] game.” The way this campaign is going, look for a Russ Feingold ad next week depicting Ron Johnson in a Minnesota Vikings jersey.
John McCormack is the online editor of The Weekly Standard.