Republican voters looking for a fight are turning to Ron Johnson again

By: - October 26, 2022 7:00 am

Sen. Ron Johnson is leading Lt. Gov Mandela Barnes in most polls two weeks out from the election. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

Sen. Ron Johnson is commonly referred to as one of the country’s most unpopular U.S. senators. His approval rating, according to a recent Marquette Law School poll, is at 41% — up four points since June — and yet, Wisconsin is on the verge of sending him back to Washington for a third term. 

The same Marquette poll showed that among likely voters, Johnson is leading his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes by about six points. Among all registered voters, the poll found a dead heat with both candidates at 47%, but forecasters are predicting a Johnson win, with FiveThirtyEight giving him a 75% shot. 

Johnson has gained national attention in recent years for his crusade against vaccines (he regularly touts his fight for the “vaccine-injured” and COVID patients’ right to demand unproven drugs such as ivermectin), his role in the Republican effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election and his investigations into alleged misdeeds by members of President Joe Biden’s family. Johnson, whose campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this article, frequently attacks the news media as being beholden to the Democratic party, another plus for his voters. 

That pugnacity, along with a severe dislike for Barnes, is the appeal for some voters who plan to vote for him again this year — even though he’s breaking a promise to only serve two terms. 

At a rally for Republican state Senate candidates in Reedsburg on Tuesday, in the strip mall office of the Sauk County Republican Party, voters said they saw Johnson as someone who’s fighting against “Chinese communists” and “globalists,” an honest man who is trying to steer a country they believe is at a crossroads in the direction they want because he stands for “the little guys.” 

These voters say they wouldn’t vote for a Democrat. They see the Democratic voters in Wisconsin’s cities as “hollow” people with “no substance.” Why else, says one voter who would only give his first name Steve, would they have chosen someone with the “milquetoast, dish rag personality” of Gov. Tony Evers?

In the Reedsburg storefront, as a gaggle of Republican state senators mingled with voters over coffee and donuts, 74-year-old David Olson was wearing an American flag jacket capped with a cheesehead adorned with stickers for Johnson and Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels and a toy John Deere tractor attached to the top. A military veteran, Olson says Americans need “to wake up to the threat that’s before us.”

David Olson says he’s supporting Johnson because he’s an “honest man.” (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

There are five issues Olson says he considers most important. Number one, he says, is that a candidate must be anti-abortion because “babies are a miracle.” He says securing the country’s border is important because “nobody can show up and expect us to take care of them” before people in the country have been fully taken care of. He wants lower taxes, a strong military and the Second Amendment defended. 

Despite Johnson’s promise that he only serve two terms, Olson believes he’d only break that promise for a good reason. 

“He’s an honest man,” he says as Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” plays over the room’s loudspeakers. “He assured us he’s a two-term senator, but I believe he’s seen situations in government that concern him and he wants to continue on course with his thoughts and is hoping he could make a difference. The situation demands another term.” 

Johnson was criticized last month by Democrats for touting a history of bipartisan legislation that was largely made up of bills renaming post offices. But Olson says he is a “mover and shaker.”

A Ron Johnson sign hangs from the window of the Sauk County Republican Party office. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

“His biggest accomplishment is he’s making us aware of what’s happening in government,” Olson says. 

Sitting around a table ahead of the rally, a group of three voters refuse to share their names but are willing to share that they haven’t watched sports since the leagues “became woke.” 

“I like voting for people who are for the people and not for Chinese communism and not for globalism,” says one of them, who adds that Johnson “appears to be honest.” Though he still has some issues with Johnson, over the Patriot Act, for example. 

“I didn’t say he’s the perfect senator,” the man says. “Not all Republicans are saints, some of them are pieces of [expletive].” 

Several voters at the rally say they appreciate that Johnson is a “bootstraps guy” who earned his money working in the private sector and still “stands up for little guys.” Johnson earned a multi-million dollar fortune running a plastics company started by his wife’s family that relied largely on millions of dollars in from his father-in-law’s business across the street.

“Nobody gave him anything,” says Steve, the voter who wouldn’t give his last name. “That’s the difference between Republican candidates and Democrat candidates. Democrats have very few achievements … Republicans earned something before deciding to run for office.” 

Randy Fry, who owns a gym in Reedsburg, believes Republicans are going to have a massive win in November because Democrats “do not understand the middle class person, they don’t feel their pain.” Pointing to the economy, inflation and crime as his most important issues, he says people are “sick” of promises from Democrats and that his likely vote for Johnson is more a vote against Barnes.

“At this point, I don’t care what he has done, I don’t want Mandela Barnes in there,” Fry says. 

Steve, who said he’s lived in Sauk County for six years, says the 2018 election — which elected a wave of Democrats to statewide office in Wisconsin and gave them control of the U.S. House of Representatives — was rigged as a practice run for 2020 and that he thinks it’s President Joe Biden’s fault that people believe it’s OK to make fun of old people.

Republican merchandise at the Sauk County Republican Party. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

Numerous audits, lawsuits, recounts and reviews have affirmed that the 2020 election was not rigged and that Biden won Wisconsin by about 21,000 votes. 

Despite thinking that there’s “a whole lot of people in Madison who will cheat,” Steve says he thinks Johnson will easily defeat Barnes next month and that he’s supporting Johnson because he’s a fighter. 

“He’s not afraid to take on the press, I love him for that,” Steve says. “He’s fearless in a lot of ways.”


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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.