The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why taking down Ron Johnson would be a tremendous victory for Democrats

(Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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If there’s a single Senate race with more symbolic importance than any other in 2022, it has to be in Wisconsin, where Ron Johnson just declared that he will run for reelection after all, notwithstanding the Republican senator’s pledge to leave after two terms.

Even beyond taking a Republican-held seat with control of the Senate on a knife’s edge, defeating Johnson would be particularly sweet for Democrats. They are so eager to oust Johnson that a dozen candidates have already declared their campaigns.

One reason for this is that, as much as anyone in the Senate, Johnson has come to embody many of the GOP’s worst pathologies in the age of Donald Trump.

Johnson was first elected in the 2010 tea party wave. He seemed like a typical creature of that moment, in which the party’s plutocratic impulses — low taxes, small government — were channeled through a grass-roots movement. Johnson’s I’m-a-businessman-not-a-politician pitch was particularly apt. “He was hyper-focused on the national debt,” said one Wisconsin Republican.

No longer. Case in point: Johnson just released two reelection ads — see here and here — and they’re saturated with Trumpist themes: They feature lurid, terrifying imagery of burning American flags, invading hordes streaming across the border, and cities on fire amid racial protests.

Here’s some of what Johnson has done in the past few years as part of his headlong lurch into Trumpism:

Ukraine: Prior to the scandal that secured Trump’s first impeachment, Johnson had been an advocate for more military aid to Ukraine. Once it was revealed that Trump withheld that aid to pressure the Ukrainian president to announce a phony investigation of Joe Biden, Johnson quickly became one of Trump’s staunchest defenders, becoming a conduit for some of the worst disinformation around the scandal.

Johnson even used his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to launch an “investigation” of Biden’s son Hunter, timed for the 2020 general election.

Covid-19: From the beginning of the pandemic, Johnson has argued that covid is no biggie and doesn’t merit extraordinary measures. As late as this past December, he charged that senior Biden adviser Anthony S. Fauci had “overhyped” covid, and that he “did the exact same thing with AIDS.” This came when almost 800,000 Americans had died from the pandemic.

Vaccines: Johnson has consistently downplayed the effectiveness of the vaccines and made wild claims that they might be killing people left and right. Johnson has not himself been vaccinated; he recommends a variety of quack cures to protect yourself and others from covid, including gargling with mouthwash.

Jan. 6: Johnson has been one of the leading Republicans trying to downplay and deny the truth of what happened, excusing the violent crowd of Trump supporters and winking at the common right-wing conspiracy theory that it might have been a false-flag operation.

“By and large it was peaceful protests," he has said. At one hearing, he read into the record an article from a conservative publication charging that Jan. 6 was engineered by “agents provocateurs” and “fake Trump protesters.”

Johnson has said Biden legitimately won his state in 2020. But he knows Wisconsin is ground zero for the Trumpification of the GOP — a swing state with a radical Republican Party steadfastly committed to ensuring that nothing resembling democracy ever breaks out.

All this has created a strange situation. In one way, the stakes are tremendously high for Democrats because Johnson embodies so many of the very worst impulses in the GOP. And yet, highlighting those impulses might not be the way to bring him down.

For instance, says Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, a stronger attack on Johnson would fuse his headlong lurch into Trumpism — such as his support for Trump’s abandonment of democracy — with Johnson’s votes against the middle class on economic issues.

“The fact that Ron Johnson is a clear and present danger to American democracy is a reason to throw everything we have into defeating him,” Wikler told us. But he added that highlighting this “is not necessarily the way to defeat him.”

A better approach, Wikler said, might be to highlight Johnson’s vote for the 2017 GOP tax cut for the rich and corporations, his vote for repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and his votes against the massive covid-19 relief package and bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed this year.

Another big vulnerability for Johnson, said Wikler, is a ProPublica exposé reporting that Johnson maneuvered to get a tax break inserted into the 2017 GOP tax law that massively benefited two billionaire families that had contributed huge amounts to Johnson’s campaign.

And so, Wikler noted, Democrats should highlight the threat Johnson poses to democracy but also link that threat to his economic “betrayal” of middle-class voters.

“It’s critical for people to understand that Johnson simply isn’t on their side,” Wikler told us, adding that Democrats must explain to voters why Trumpist Republicans such as Johnson are undermining democracy wherever possible.

“The answer, over and over, is that they want to lock in power for themselves so that they can pick the pockets of people left and right, White, Black and Brown,” Wikler said.

Everyone on both sides seems pleased that Johnson is running again. But if Democrats can beat him in what will be a difficult year, it will be a very meaningful triumph indeed.