Ron Johnson laments ‘anger and division’ in politics on the campaign trail
MUSKEGO, Wisconsin — Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) frets about the “anger and division” roiling American politics. How much? Everywhere Johnson goes while campaigning for reelection against Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (D), he raises the topic, unprompted, and declares his commitment to “unifying and healing” the nation.
“Aren’t you getting tired of the anger and division? I certainly am,” the Republican senator told a crowd of 500 college students on a recent weekday morning. A few hours later, it was more of the same during a town hall meeting with workers on a factory floor. “I’m dedicated to unifying and healing this nation. I truly am,” Johnson said. “That’s my promise to you.”
But Johnson doesn’t spread the blame equally among Democrats and Republicans when it comes to which party, or which party’s leaders, are responsible for the anger and division that has him so concerned. President Joe Biden might have failed to honor the promise of his inaugural address. But is unity and healing possible with former President Donald Trump also stoking discord?
“I can only speak for myself,” Johnson insisted Saturday during an interview with the Washington Examiner after being mobbed by voters with handshakes, selfie requests, and well-wishes for success in the midterm elections while visiting an annual Oktoberfest gathering at a Moose Lodge in Muskego, an exurban community in the Republican stronghold of Waukesha County.
“But again, I want you to understand the role the media has played in this, how divisive the media has been,” Johnson said. Remember half the population did not accept Donald Trump as the legitimate president — and that was all OK.” The senator wasn’t finished. “From a conservative’s perspective, we see the, again, grotesque unfairness, grotesque bias in the media,” he said.
“Fast-forward, where there are definitely irregularities in the 2020 election — because of COVID, we doubled the number of absentee ballots,” Johnson continued. “Where fraud can occur is primarily absentee ballots. So, we doubled them, and here in Wisconsin, we relaxed all kinds of controls over them. Oh, nothing to see here.”
Neither is Johnson, 67 — up for a third Senate term Nov. 8 — necessarily calling for a ceasefire. “What I think we need to heal this nation is, first, the truth — acknowledge the truth,” he said. “It’s the bias in the media that is, from my standpoint, driving so much of the division and anger on our side.”
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Johnson-Barnes is a close race, befitting Wisconsin, a state that has seesawed between Democrats and Republicans over the past dozen years, reflecting the direction of national political winds. But after trailing his 35-year-old Democratic challenger late in the summer, Johnson has led in the polls, consistently, for nearly four consecutive weeks, with political tailwinds, and voters’ priorities — skyrocketing inflation, rising crime, Biden’s low job approval ratings — pointing toward victory.
Crime, particularly, might be a bigger issue in Wisconsin than inflation. And as the face of bail reform in the Badger State, and a past outspoken critic of police practices, Barnes has been feeling the heat — at least enough that he worked to undo the damage in his first debate with Johnson. But the senator is not coasting, having assembled what his campaign describes as the largest nonpresidential voter turnout operation in Wisconsin history.
The effort includes more than 90 paid political and field staff; 1,000 unpaid volunteers described as “actively engaged;” and 64 field offices across the state, plus additional “pop-up” field officers. Among the 64 permanent headquarters are three field offices in Milwaukee, including one each in primarily black and Hispanic neighborhoods. The campaign boasts of knocking on 300,000 doors since Sept. 1. Johnson’s field operation could be a difference-maker.
The senator is under pressure for his opposition to abortion rights in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that overturned Roe v. Wade; and he is facing questions for his habit of downplaying the severity of the Jan. 6, 2021, ransacking of the U.S. Capitol. Indeed, the first question he received during a Q&A with students at conservative Maranatha Baptist University in Watertown, Wisconsin, was on this very topic.
Democrats in Wisconsin argue these issues are energizing their voters and keeping Barnes in contention despite obvious political challenges — and history: Typically, the party in power in the White House loses an average of 25 House seats and four Senate seats in midterm elections. “People are getting fired up,” Calena Roberts, political field director for the Service Employees International Union, said while attending a rally for Barnes in Milwaukee. “Don’t count us out.”
Johnson responds to Democratic attacks on abortion by hammering Barnes for opposing all government restrictions on access to the procedure, including late in pregnancy, when the fetus is clearly viable. This counterpunch could prove politically potent, with polls showing a majority of voters oppose late-term abortions. Meanwhile, the senator seems visibly frustrated by the lingering criticism regarding his comments regarding Jan. 6 — an event nearly two years old.
“As soon as I saw the violence … I condemned it immediately; I condemned it forcefully — I’ve condemned it repeatedly. I always have. We all do,” Johnson told the Washington Examiner. But he added: “To me, an insurrection is something that’s pre-planned with volumes of people that can actually carry it out. This was some kind of ragtag operation from some groups agitating, creating the violence, which I have repeatedly condemned.”
Johnson rode the Tea Party wave to an unexpected victory in 2010 over then-Sen. Russ Feingold (D). Six years later, Johnson surprised the political handicappers again, beating Feingold in a rematch after many political insiders in his own party had left the senator for dead (Johnson outperformed Trump in that race). Asked to compare those campaigns to the political atmosphere of 2022, Johnson said this contest feels palpably different.
Republican voters, the senator said, view participating in this fall’s election as a more urgent task than 12 years ago, when they were galvanized by opposition to Obamacare and anxiety about an economy that had not recovered from a devastating recession. “People are thinking, ‘Our country’s in jeopardy. We need to save this country,’” Johnson said. “That wasn’t like that in 2010.”
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The senator’s assessment was bolstered by the affection he was showered with as he made his way through the Oktoberfest gathering here in Muskego. Even before Johnson could introduce himself and ask for their vote, attendees put their beer and bratwurst aside to greet the senator and thank him for representing their interests in Washington and, importantly, promise him he has their vote in November.
Interviews with more than a half-dozen of them revealed a pattern of loyalty Johnson has cultivated among Republican voters.
“He’s with the people, speaks for the people, and he works for us and he’s willing to come out and do things like this, and he actually listens to us,” Patrick Panka, 44, a craftsman selling his wares at the Moose Lodge, said just after shaking hands with Johnson.
Added Donna Labisch, 51, while relaxing on a high-top near the bar just after posing for a picture with the senator: “He’s a genuine person that cares about the community; he cares about the people.”