Commentary

Ron Johnson’s announcement a mixed blessing for the GOP

January 12, 2022 6:30 am

Ron Johnson with former Vice President Mike Pence in Wisconsin | White House photo

Republican Sen. Ron Johnson’s announcement that he has finally made up his mind to break his promise and run for a third term is a mixed bag for the GOP. On the one hand, since Johnson has stopped dithering and tying up the whole field of potential Republican candidates for both the Senate and the governor’s race in 2022, they finally have a candidate. On the other hand, that candidate is Ron Johnson.

The Cook Political Report has categorized Johnson’s 2022 re-election race a “toss-up” — making Johnson the only incumbent in the country to earn that dubious distinction, in part, says Jessaica Taylor, Cook’s Senate and governors editor, because “he was saying all these crazy things every single day.”

Johnson’s greatest hits have been played a lot by the national media. Among them: describing the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol as “people that love this country, that truly respect law enforcement”; his early insistence that preventing deaths from the pandemic was not worth the economic cost of keeping people home, and his relentless promotion of remedies including Ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine and mouthwash for COVID. Plus there’s his refusal to get vaccinated, and his insistence that vaccines and ventilators kill people.

Recently, Johnson intimated that scientists who develop vaccines are heretics, telling rightwing talk radio host Vicky McKenna “Why do we think that we can create something better than God in terms of combating disease? Why do we assume that the body’s natural immune system isn’t the marvel that it really is?”

The Senator for the Dark Ages faces an uphill battle in Wisconsin not just because he thinks it’s God’s will that people use mouthwash to try to cure COVID-19. No, he’s underwater in the polls for the simple reason that he has lost touch with the people who elected him.

It’s all fine and well for Donald Trump’s biggest ally in the U.S. Senate to preach wingnut conspiracy theories to the hard right base, but Johson was elected twice with significant support from suburban voters outside Milwaukee who have been abandoning Republicans in droves since the last time Johnson ran. 

That softening accelerated under Trump, causing him to lose re-election in 2020 (although neither Trump nor Johnson is ready to admit it yet, two years into the Biden administration.) Johnson’s solution — suggesting that the GOP-controlled Wisconsin Legislature should seize control and overturn elections if they don’t like the results — is too out-there even for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. That’s saying something. 

While suburban voters and Republican establishment types don’t much care for Johnson’s wacky politics, he’s also got some problems with the Trump base. It’s no secret that Wisconsin voters remain deeply divided. Rural parts of the state that went for Trump in 2016 voted for him again by even bigger margins in 2020. But Trump’s message that he would look out for “the forgotten men and women of America” is not a good fit with Johnson’s message: “Let them eat cake.”

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The multimillionaire whose father-in-law gave him a job running his wife’s family business, Johnson paid a grand total of $2,105 in income taxes in 2017. That was the same year he cast the deciding vote on the 2017 Trump Tax Bill — a $1.4 trillion handout for the wealthiest Americans and big corporations. As The Guardian reported, Johnson began the process of selling a company he partly owned in February 2018, just months after he insisted the Trump Administration change a portion of the tax law in a way that ultimately benefited the sale.

And it’s not just that Johnson used his time in Washington to give himself handouts. At the same time he was enriching himself, he was also doing everything in his power to prevent people back home who were hit hard by the pandemic from getting any help.

Johnson has been a stalwart opponent of extending unemployment benefits, no matter how dire the circumstances, saying, “When you extend unemployment benefits, you extend unemployment.” He asked Gov. Tony Evers to end supplemental unemployment insurance payments for people displaced during the pandemic, declaring in a statement, “The biggest problem businesses in Wisconsin face now is finding people willing to turn down government subsidies and go back to work.”

​​He voted against $1,400 stimulus checks and the American Relief Plan Act, denying Wisconsinites and the state’s businesses much-needed pandemic relief. And he didn’t just vote against the bill, he tried to obstruct its passage by requiring Senate clerks to read all 600 pages on the floor, pushing back the vote by several hours.

He was one of only a handful of Senators to vote against the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which included free coronavirus testing, expanded family and medical leave, paid emergency sick leave, unemployment benefits, food assistance and protections for health care workers. It passed the Senate 90-8. Johnson was one of the eight.

Throughout his Senate career, he repeatedly voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which would strip health care coverage from hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites and jeopardize another 1.2 million with pre-existing conditions. 

And he voted against the bipartisan infrastructure plan without bothering to read it

In the Wall Street Journal on Sunday, Johnson explained his decision to break his 2016 promise not to run again, saying, among other things, he didn’t  anticipate the pandemic or “the government’s failed response to it.”

Into the breach steps Johnson, armed with bottles of mouthwash and Ivermectin. 

“Tens of millions of dollars will be spent trying to destroy and defeat me,” he writes in the Wall Street Journal op-ed that focuses heavily – without any intentional irony — on the dangers posed by “elites.”  “We face powerful forces that desire even more power and control over our lives,” Johnson warns. “Their path, paved with false hope and greater dependency, always leads to tyranny.”

False hope or not, Johnson’s eager opponents include not just the liberal cabal he point to, but also a large number of regular Wisconsin voters who have finally had enough. 

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Her book "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel Award from The New Press.

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