Best Wisconsin Scenario For Democrats: Tom Nelson v Ron Johnson

Joe McCarthy's spiritual, political and ethical heir has been coy about admitting to Badger state voters that he intends to break his campaign promise-- two terms only-- and run for a third term. But, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Johnson's been looking for election consultants and a campaign manager and two "highly placed" Republican sources have told the AP that Johnson will soon announce. We ran down some of the parameters of the impending race early in the week and explained why Blue America has endorsed Outagamie County Executive-- and former state Assembly Majority Leader-- Tom Nelson. (Please consider contributing to Tom's campaign here.) This morning Nelson reiterated that Johnson "admitted he’s a failed senator who is now breaking his promise not to run again. It’s time to have a Senator for Wisconsin who fights for the working class, not the billionaire class and has a real track record of accomplishment." Tom was a Bernie delegate to the Democratic convention. The other plausible candidates range from worthless multimillionaire self-financing conservatives who are closer to Manchin and Sinema than to Bernie-- who swept Wisconsin (56.6% to 43.1%) and winning every county but one in 2016-- to an establishment liberal whose tepid approach to today;'s burning issues is a blueprint for defeat.

I spoke with Randy Bryce, who has been neutral in the primary, this morning. He told me that he has a long history with Johnson. "Somehow he was able to beat someone that I had a lot of respect for-- Russ Feingold. Yes, the same one who was the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act because he read it! At the time I was an organizer with Ironworkers Local 8. I knew Johnson would be bad but had no idea just how bad it would get. He's the kind of guy who married someone that was born on third base but claimed to hit a triple. The company that he married into used prison labor in order to get out of paying livable wages. On one occasion there were 19 of us who were arrested for having the gall to ask him what his alternative was after he voted against President Obama's Jobs Plan. We sat in the entrance of a public building and were charged with trespassing. (later dropped to making excessive noise). One of the people arrested was an elderly woman nearly 80 years old. Johnson called it a 'publicity stunt.' He offered to meet with us a few days later, but, at his office in Oshkosh-- a trip that would take us hours to make. We took him up on the offer and car pooled to meet him. Halfway there we were informed that he wouldn't be able to make the meeting because his plane was iced over in Washington DC. I checked the weather in DC and saw that it was nearly 70 degrees. Regardless, we turned around and went back home. Imagine our surprise when we learned that he was able to make it to a fundraiser that same evening in Oshkosh close to the same time that our meeting was supposed to take place!"

Randy added that "In addition to not being very bright (spreading COVID misinformation) he is also a habitual liar. He also likes spending July 4th in Russia. (What a patriot!) Now we come to learn that after promising that his last term would be his last, he's once again is caught in a lie-- he's running for a third term. I have news for him. We're going to make sure he doesn't get a third term and we're going to help him keep at least one promise."

This morning, in his New York Magazine column, Ed Kilgore, asked Will This Be The Year Ron Johnson's Luck Runs Out? There's no doubt that Johnson will be a major target for Democrats nationally. "To put it simply," wrote Kilgore, "he’s not the sort of lawmaker that battleground states tend to elect and then keep reelecting. He’s sort of a cross between a local chamber of commerce president whose views of government and fiscal policy were formed in the 1950s, and a right-wing talk show host in a very small market. He’s seamlessly made the transition from being a classic throw-the-bums-out Tea Party candidate when first elected in 2010, to becoming a MAGA crank today. As the New Republic’s Daniel Strauss explains in a recent profile of Johnson, the senator is the 'perfect encapsulation of the type of Republican who dives deep into misinformation and debunked science.'"

"In mid-November, the senator’s YouTube page was, for the second time, temporarily suspended for violating the website’s rules on spreading misinformation about COVID. During the coronavirus pandemic, he has been one of the most high-ranking officials in Congress to elevate and push conspiracy theories about vaccines. He’s floated that Ivermectin was being suppressed in order to help boost pricier drugs with the same benefits. He’s pushed hydroxychloroquine as a viable alternative to Covid vaccines."

Johnson has also dismissed climate change as “bullshit.” And he’s been an eager proponent of misinformation about the 2020 elections, while hailing the Trump supporting who came to Washington last January 6 as “people that love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, [and] would never do anything to break the law.” He also hasn’t lost his old fiscal curmudgeon views, either; he was a bitter opponent of Biden’s popular 2021 stimulus bill on grounds it increased budget deficits.
But he’s not a pol who should be underestimated. In 2016 he was all but left for dead by many Republican groups (including the Senate Republican fundraising committee and a PAC closely tied to the Koch brothers) when he badly trailed former senator Russ Feingold in polls for their rematch of the race Johnson won in an upset in 2010. His anti-politician shtick still seems to work under the right circumstances.
Johnson has also, however, arguably been lucky. As noted 2010 was an ideal cycle for someone like this novice candidate with a business background. And in 2016, when he beat Feingold again, Wisconsin was experiencing the sudden rightward tilt that gave this state to a Republican presidential candidate (Trump, of course) for the first time in 32 years. And now it’s likely Johnson will again run in a favorable election year for Republicans. But it’s unclear this deeply polarized state full of highly motivated voters will be typical of the country.
Certainly the field of viable Democrats competing to oppose Johnson (notably Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes; state Treasurer Sarah Godlew­ski; Milwaukee Bucks senior vice president Alex Lasry; and Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson) indicates some confidence his time is finally up. And his act may be wearing thin on voters. A November 2021 poll by the respected Marquette Law School outfit placed Johnson’s favorability ratio underwater at 36-42, and gave him a reelect number of only 38 percent.
It’s possible that Johnson’s race could be overshadowed by a red-hot gubernatorial contest with potentially big implications for how the 2024 election is run (and the results tabulated) in Wisconsin. Incumbent Democrat Tony Evers is being challenged by Republican former Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, who thought she might have the GOP primary to herself. But Johnson’s decision to run for a third term will likely bump rising-star Kevin Nicholson, who was eyeing a Senate race after running unsuccessfully for the upper chamber in 2018, into a challenge to Kleefisch. Meanwhile Donald Trump has encouraged former congressman Sean Duffy to enter the gubernatorial race.
But this is Wisconsin, where the one sure thing is that statewide races will be competitive, expensive, and often vicious. It’s not a bad environment for a loud and proud yahoo like Ron Johnson. As TNR’s Strauss notes, “Republicans privately roll their eyes at Johnson,” But they will go to the mats for him, and control of the Senate, along with Joe Biden’s ability to get his judicial and executive-branch nominees confirmed, may depend on whether Democrats can succeed where Feingold failed.

Nelson isn't flashy or charismatic; he's a thorough, thoughtful and relentless crusader for Justice. If he manages to get by the flashes in the pan the Democratic establishment prefers, Johnson won't have a third term. Nelson has demonstrated an ability to do what Milwaukee Democrats have been largely unable to do: appeal to voters statewide.


State Senator Chris Larson was, briefly, a candidate for the U.S. Senate seat but decided not to run. This morning he told me: "As much as folks may grind their teeth about Manchin and Sinema blocking progress on the scope of the child tax credit, how to best tax billionaires and corporations, how quickly to tackle climate change, and what federal leaders can do to prevent the smothering of democracy by states through gerrymandering, purging voters, and putting up barriers to voting, it's worth pausing to realize that on each of these crucial issues, every single Republican US Senator has stood in direct opposition to ANY progress and, if given the chance, would move America in the direct opposite direction of where we need to go.

"Ron Johnson is the perfect example of this. This piece lays out a good summary of how extreme he has become. More importantly, it reminds us that he was underestimated before and was still elected twice in our swing state.

"The only thing it leaves out is that Ron Johnson is also corrupt and endlessly self-serving. When he ran in 2010, he spent $9 million out of pocket, only to turn around and use his business to give himself a $10 million 'bonus.' In 2017, he refused to pass Trump’s regressive tax cuts until he added a provision that benefited him and his family and vaulted him to be the 6th richest US Senator.

"Pretty nice for a guy pretending to care about the deficit whenever federal money might go toward people with a lower country club status than him.

"We're now officially in an election year. Pick a candidate and donate. If you can't pick a candidate, please donate to the Democratic Party of Wisconsin who, under the leadership of Ben Wikler, are already doing amazing work in making sure we vote out the worst US Senator in Wisconsin history (something they didn't even do during the Joe McCarthy era)."