Congress is out of session, but Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) nevertheless started his week in Washington, hosting a who’s who of coronavirus treatment truthers and vaccine skeptics for a panel his office called “COVID-19: A Second Opinion.”
One day earlier, anti-vaccine activists had marched in the streets of Washington and decried whatever COVID-19 vaccine mandates the country has left. Johnson’s panelists questioned the safety of vaccines and pushed unproven treatments like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin.
“I would have liked to see a larger dose of modesty coming out of our federal health officials, legacy media and big tech,” Johnson said Monday. The statement has become his raison-d’etre in Washington, where he has established himself as the Senate’s resident COVID-19 response skeptic.
At the panel, the senator shared outdated statistics — he’s still talking about Sweden’s more lax early response to COVID-19, even though the Scandinavian country now has much stronger vaccine and COVID-19 prevention policies — and elevated potentially dangerous advice to self-medicate with unproven treatments. By Thursday, he was on conservative activist Charlie Kirk’s show, baselessly and wrongfully claiming that professional athletes were dropping dead on the field because of the COVID-19 vaccines.
Johnson blames the mainstream media and big tech (he was briefly suspended from YouTube for spreading COVID-19 misinformation) for censoring him and the fringe medical professionals in his circle. He claims President Joe Biden’s administration and government health officials are part of some big cover-up.
The senator has seemingly become so obsessed with his trutherism that he is running for a third term to be a voice for conspiracy theories: “to speak plain and obvious truths other elected leaders shirk from expressing ― truths the elite in government, mainstream media and Big Tech don’t want you to hear,” as he puts it.
“Some observers figured he might end his time in the Senate, and that was why he was willing to go out on a limb on so many of these issues,” said Barry Burden, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “He seems to be genuinely concerned that these fringe ideas about public health and education and elections are not getting enough attention and he wants to be there in Washington to advocate for them.”
“It’s not a cautious incumbent-oriented reelection strategy,” Burden added.
“Ron Johnson is going to do what the hell he wants.”
Republicans, both in Wisconsin and nationwide, have come to accept that there’s no changing Johnson’s ways. He won his last two elections as an independent voice, even when most outside observers said he wouldn’t be able to do it. And he did it largely without the national party’s help.
“I’m sure they all have their druthers as to what they’d like to see,” said Brandon Scholz, a Republican strategist in Wisconson, referring to GOP officials at the state and local level. “Ron Johnson is going to do what the hell he wants.”
The Republican Party is now deferring to Johnson, according to a national GOP strategist, although they noted that there may be some voices trying to “focus” him on more kitchen table issues.
Johnson’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
“You may have consultants that say it is not a good idea to run a general election campaign on crazy conspiracy theories, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he continues to double down on that,” said Charlie Sykes, a Wisconsin-based political commentator who hosted an influential Milwaukee conservative talk radio show for more than two decades.
In 2010, Johnson and Sykes were allies; Johnson credited Sykes with helping him oust Democrat Russ Feingold in an incredible upset election that catapulted Johnson from unknown Republican businessman to a two-term statesman. Sykes, a “Never Trump”-style conservative, said he now hates talking about Johnson.
“Trumpism broke his brain,” Sykes said, reflecting that the Wisconsin senator has always had an affinity for conservative talk radio in the state, a platform that has “become very open to conspiracy theories.”
So far, Johnson has run in election cycles favorable for Republicans. He rode in on the 2010 tea party wave, and then again with Donald Trump at the top of the ticket in 2016. Johnson, it should be noted, outperformed Trump, even though in both races the national Republican Party didn’t think he had much of a shot. He was against Feingold, a popular incumbent, in 2010, and few thought Trump would win the presidency in 2016.
This year, Biden’s favorability ratings have fallen nationally and in Johnson’s home state, and historically the party out of power in the White House has the momentum in midterm elections. Republicans are also vying for the governor’s seat against incumbent Democrat Tony Evers; they’re running Rebecca Kleefisch, who served as lieutenant governor under Gov. Scott Walker.
But Johnson, too, is starting out his reelection bid underwater. In November, Marquette University polling found 42% of the electorate had an unfavorable opinion of Johnson. He’s also the only Republican senator running in a state that Biden won in 2020.
Put succinctly, the electorate is unhappy — with elected officials of both parties, the economy and the state of the pandemic. All of it.
“Trumpism broke his brain.”
If Johnson were a conventional Republican politician, he’d likely have no issue getting reelected. But he’s betting on conspiracy theories.
His COVID-19 trutherism isn’t popular with the general population in Wisconsin either; Charles Franklin, Marquette’s pollster, said around 30% of the population has confidence in Johnson’s coronavirus messaging, compared to roughly 50% who have confidence in Evers.
Johnson is talking to a primary voter base, despite not having a primary challenger.
“I think he would be in trouble if he was betting on the Trump coalition to turn out OK to guarantee his reelection,” Burden said. “The Republican coalition is now skewed toward people with lower levels of education. That’s a trend that really accelerated during the Trump years and people with lower levels of education are less likely to vote in non-presidential elections.”
“It’s sort of a problem that the Democrats used to have,” he added. “Voters who were harder to turn out in the midterms have now become something of a Republican problem.”
There are some signs of a push and pull in his campaign, between the more conventional Republican small-government, tough-on-crime politics and Johnson’s conspiratorial hobby horses seemingly born out of the depths of right-wing media outlets.
Johnson’s first two television ads weren’t about his feelings on COVID-19 or election “fraud,” or a defense of Capitol rioters (all things he seems to enjoy talking about). One was about increasing crime, the Black Lives Matter protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last summer, and undocumented immigrants flooding the borders with imagery of a burning American flag. Another was focused on the withdrawal from Afghanistan and rising inflation.
His campaign manager is a veteran of Martha McSally’s failed Senate bid in Arizona and, most recently, the early days of Glenn Youngkin’s successful bid for Virginia’s governorship — two candidates handpicked by the establishment Republican Party.
“There’s a split between what he’s saying at events and what the advertising is currently running on,” Franklin said.
But those tensions aren’t stopping Johnson from making media appearances peddling his lies.
“He is perfectly willing to say these things about COVID that our data shows are not as appealing to the public at large but may have a very positive response on primary voters,” Franklin said.
It’s the kind of persona that Democrats are eager to fight against in the 2022 midterm elections. For this reason, Wisconsin’s Senate race is one of the few opportunities Democrats see to increase — or, at the very least, hold onto — their majority.
“Wisconsinites are fed up with Ron Johnson’s self-serving political games at their expense and are going to elect a senator who will actually represent us in Washington,” Philip Shulman, a spokesperson for the Wisconsin Democratic Party, told HuffPost.
Democrats, notably, have also focused their attacks on Johnson’s votes on the 2017 Republican tax bill, as well as his push to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The hope is that Johnson’s fringe obsessions will get enough attention on their own, making him a Trump-like villain who will energize Democrats to go to the polls.
But Republicans are confident that conservatives in the state — potentially even those who voted for Biden in 2020 — aren’t going to be so quick to jump on to whoever the Democrats nominate.
Democrats have a packed field of candidates, many of whom are flush with cash. Three names lead the pack: Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes has been at the top, with state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski and the Milwaukee Bucks’s owner’s son Alex Lasry as strong contenders. All three are running on platforms fairly similar to Biden’s.
Republicans are ready to call them all radicals, and out-of-touch liberals. And they are hoping Kleefisch, their likely nominee for governor, will pull disaffected Republicans back into the party.
“There was a drop off of some suburban Republican women,” Scholz said. “Somebody is gonna say, well, Johnson sounds an awful lot like Donald Trump, and therefore they’re not gonna vote for him. Hold the horses on that. Rebecca Kleefisch is going to be the nominee for the gubernatorial race against Governor Evers. She has got those Republican women locked in. They will be voting Republican. They will not move over their ticket. They will not stay home.”
Still, Democrats want to show Johnson is not the same small-business Republican they voted for in 2010.
At least one Wisconsin Republican can attest to that.
“I remember, there was a time when Ted Cruz was shutting down the federal government and was demagoguing, that Ron Johnson hated Ted Cruz, and thought Ted Cruz was being a really reckless demagogue,” Sykes said of Johnson from the Obama era.
“If this race is a referendum on Ron Johnson, Johnson is in a lot of trouble,” he added. “If it is a choice between Ron Johnson and a very progressive Democrat, that’s a completely different dynamic and I think that that’s what Republicans are counting on.”