When Charlie Sykes, a conservative pundit and Wisconsin GOP kingmaker, placed a little-known businessman on the map in 2010, he felt he knew who he was grooming to become a Republican Party star.
This great hope for the GOP, according to Sykes, was a “solid, Midwestern, Wall Street Journal editorial page Republican.”
Ron Johnson was his name. And, according to Sykes, seeing Johnson as a politician would have been almost impossible.
Johnson is still, to some degree, a walking Wall Street Journal editorial page. On Monday, he announced that he would run for re-election to the United States Senate for a third time.
“During the 2016 campaign, I said it would be my last campaign and final term. That was my strong preference, and my wife’s—we both looked forward to a normal private life. Neither of us anticipated the Democrats’ complete takeover of government and the disastrous policies they have already inflicted on America and the world, to say nothing of those they threaten to enact in the future.”
In classic RonAnon fashion, Johnson first pledged to serve just two terms. But, looking at his self-imposed pink slip, Johnson claimed that “America is in peril,” forcing him to seek another term in power to fight “the Democrats’ complete takeover of government and the disastrous policies they have already inflicted on America and the world.”
Johnson’s declaration immediately vaulted him to the top of Democrats’ 2022 Senate target list, setting up a headline Senate race in the Badger State, which is one of the most divisive in the nation.
However, in the perspective of Sykes and others, the Ron Johnson of this campaign is not the same as the Ron Johnson of previous campaigns. He could be better defined these days as a Midwestern Republican immersed in far-right fever swamps.
Johnson has spent most of his second administration exaggerating conspiracy theories and making ridiculous allegations, most notably concerning the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccines, Jan. 6, and the Donald Trump investigations.
“Nor did we anticipate the pandemic, the government’s failed response to it, the loss of freedom that has resulted, and the tyrannical approach taken by the elites who have created and maintained a state of fear that allows them to exercise control over Americans’ lives.”
Republicans regard Johnson, a 66-year-old who married into a plastics corporation that ultimately made him a multi-millionaire CEO, as having a legitimate claim to the elusive “outsider” moniker that so many politicians aspire for. He’d never ran for political office before 2010, but he rose to prominence when Sykes read one of his speeches on the radio. He’s just as at ease drinking a beer as he is gently expressing suspicion about life-saving immunizations.
As he prepares for a difficult campaign, Johnson is anticipated to ratchet up the rhetoric that has made him one of the left’s most despised senators and an unexpected hero of the right. According to analysts, his track record of proving naysayers wrong, even those within his own party, has infused him with an especially rebellious urge to stick it to his expanding legions of opponents.
Johnson previewed his campaign in a short interview in the Capitol on Wednesday, saying he will concentrate on “just all the Democratic policies and the results of them.” He especially referenced illegal immigration, the United States’ military exit from Afghanistan, unprecedented inflation rates, and the government debt.
“President Reagan warned that freedom is fragile, always one generation away from extinction. As I have told crowds since my first Tea Party speeches in 2010: This is a fight for freedom. This is not someone else’s fight, this is our fight, and it’s a fight we absolutely must win.”
Sykes, who was so influential in Johnson’s ascension that the senator even credited him with gaining him the job, is now a harsh opponent of RonAnon. He predicted that Johnson’s surly style of politics would be unbridled in the 2022 campaign, and that he would wage a “scorched-earth” and “sharp-edged” campaign.
“This is a vindication campaign for him,” said Sykes. “This will be very much the Ron Johnson id. He’s going to let the freak flag fly.”
It is not a leap to imply that control of the Senate, which is presently split equally between the parties, may hinge on the outcome of this campaign. Johnson is the only Republican incumbent seeking re-election in a state won by Joe Biden in 2020. With other incumbent Democrats facing tight elections elsewhere, a Johnson loss might help guarantee Democrats maintain control of the chamber, but his victory could ensure Republicans regain control.
Johnson’s emerging reputation as a persistent source of plain false—and occasionally very bizarre—claims may seem to be a severe liability in an election that may be determined by hundreds of votes.
During President Donald Trump’s Ukraine impeachment crisis in 2019, Johnson first found himself consistently in the national news cycle by circulating baseless charges of corruption against Biden.
Following Trump’s defeat in 2020, Johnson aggressively toyed with the great lie of widespread electoral fraud, refusing to recognise Biden’s victory. He supposedly knew it was all a lie in private. In December 2020, a county GOP official in Wisconsin reported in The Bulwark that Johnson said he knew Biden would win but that admitting it would be “political death.”
Johnson had planned to challenge to the counting of electoral votes on January 6, but following the assault on the Capitol, he moved to validate the state tallies. However, in the aftermath of the incident, Johnson has contributed to the pro-Trump revisionist history surrounding Jan. 6 by propagating denialist assertions, such as the belief that the Capitol was invaded by “friendly” protestors, and blaming Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the violence.
Meanwhile, the COVID epidemic has afforded repeated chances for Johnson, who appears on cable television on a semi-regular basis, to deliver strange viewpoints that are often untethered from medical and public health consensus.
The senator has openly urged individuals to use anti-virus medications such as hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin, and, most recently, mouthwash to protect themselves against the virus. Simultaneously, he has used his public platform to cast doubt on the safety and efficacy of COVID vaccinations, asking last week, “Why do we think that we can create something better than God in terms of combating disease?”
Democratic and Republican watchers in Wisconsin agree on an unusual dynamic that is developing right now: Johnson is the unique candidate that both parties want in the campaign. Republicans want a battle-tested incumbent and a clean primary; Democrats prefer to run against an incumbent they believe is fundamentally flawed.
According to Zepecki, this reality “breaks my brain a little bit.” However, he said that Ron Johnson may be the lone Republican who loses this seat.
“We could wake up on December 1st and find that Republicans swept all battleground races and lost Johnson,” Zepecki said.
Johnson’s continuously low poll numbers over the past year seem to have fueled that view. A Marquette University poll conducted in November revealed that 38 percent of respondents would vote to re-elect Johnson, while 52 percent would vote for “someone else.”
Here we go.