BELOIT, Wis. – Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, emerging from a private meeting last week with business executives at a massive foundry-turned-tech hub, smiled despite what he said was a difficult conversation about inflation, high energy prices, staffing shortages and rising crime.
“We had a very good discussion, even though it wasn’t particularly uplifting, because the reality right now is concerning,” Johnson said.
As one of the nation's critical U.S. Senate races nears an end, Johnson has reason to feel confident. All those negatives stand to work well for him and his party in a midterm election in which voters typically blame the party that holds the White House. And Johnson is hammering those themes in what amounts to his closing argument for voters to give him a third term over Democrat Mandela Barnes, the lieutenant governor.
“These people are fundamentally destroying this country,” Johnson said of Barnes and Democrats at a campaign stop Monday. “They have to be stopped. They need to be defeated. They need a real shellacking.”
Barnes has ratcheted up his own rhetoric in the closing days, saying Johnson has “lied to our faces for 12 straight years” and returned repeatedly to Johnson’s downplaying of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and his attempts to deliver a slate of fake electors to former Vice President Mike Pence.
“He’s not just a danger to this state, he’s a threat to the stability of this country,” Barnes said Tuesday at a meeting of the Rotary Club of Milwaukee. “That’s who he is.”
The Wisconsin race is one of a handful that could be critical to which party controls the Senate. Polls have shown Johnson with an apparently increasing lead over Barnes, and national Republicans who abandoned his campaign six years ago are pouring money into the final days.
The former plastics manufacturer rode the tea party wave in 2010 to win his first Senate race over Sen. Russ Feingold, then beat Feingold in a rematch six years later.
Johnson has proven to be an elusive target for liberals even as he has drifted rightward since Donald Trump's election in 2016 and polls have shown Johnson's favorability rating to be upside down. Trump won Wisconsin in 2016, and lost it in 2020, by less than a point. Johnson won both of his elections by fewer than 5 points.
Barnes, who is seeking to become Wisconsin's first Black senator, has sought to portray Johnson as out of touch with the cares of middle-class voters. He has reminded them of an investigation by ProPublica that found that provisions Johnson added to the 2017 tax bill delivered millions in tax savings to key donors including billionaire Diane Hendricks of Beloit-based ABC Supply.
Hendricks developed the industrial park in Beloit where Johnson had his meeting. She has poured millions into his race, including $3.1 million a month before Election Day.
Johnson hasn't shied away from his vote in support of the 2017 tax bill. He said a provision he pushed for cutting business taxes “allows small businesses to compete with the big guys.”
Barnes, who paid no income taxes in 2018 and was on the state's Medicaid program, has contrasted his upbringing in Milwaukee by his schoolteacher mom and factory worker father with Johnson's wealth. He has also pointed out a generational divide; at 35, he's almost half the age of the 67-year-old Johnson.
“Ron Johnson does not truly represent who we are,” Barnes said at the Madison rally with U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, a fellow millennial and former Democratic presidential candidate. “People like Ron Johnson have had their day; it’s our time now.”
Barnes, like Democrats all across the country, has also tried to make the race a referendum on abortion rights. Johnson is a longtime supporter of an abortion ban without exceptions, a position Barnes calls “dangerous and out of touch.” Johnson has tried to blunt the issue by saying he supported a state referendum to let voters decide, but he opposed an effort by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers for such a vote.
And Barnes has tried to present himself as a unifier, echoing themes of both President Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama's campaigns, saying Tuesday that “we’ve got to bring back decency to this state and to this country.”
Both Barnes and Johnson say the other has done little to help the state over their time in office.
Barnes served four years in the Assembly as part of a Democratic minority that could do little against the Republican majority. As lieutenant governor, a job with almost no official duties, Barnes took up the issue of climate change and led a task force examining ways the state can address it.
Johnson points to passage of his “right-to-try bill,” which allowed terminally ill patients to receive experimental drugs, as one of the ways he has delivered for Wisconsin.
Johnson has said things politicians usually shy away from, including taking away guaranteed funding for Social Security and Medicare, saying that's the only way to save the popular entitlement programs. He contends voters will reward him for truth-telling.
“When I ran in 2010 I made two promises," Johnson said in Beloit. "I'll always tell you the truth, and I’ll never vote or conduct myself with my reelection in mind. I've honored those promises.”
A reporter pointed out that Johnson had also promised to only serve two terms.
“That was my intention,” Johnson said. “Things change.”