In the standard political-science view of electoral politics, highly competitive elections in closely contested areas pull candidates to the mythical “center” as they pursue the equally mythical “median voter” who determines winners and losers. According to that view of things, you’d figure that a Republican senator from Wisconsin, by any measure one of the two or three most intensely competitive states, would be a mild-mannered Susan Collins–type willing to listen to both sides of every argument. If so, you’d figure wrong. It’s Wisconsin’s two-term Republican senator, Ron Johnson, not some former football coach from Alabama, who most consistently embraces the more outlandish tenets of latter-day Trumpism.
Johnson exhibited his out-there mindset again Tuesday during a Senate hearing on the Capitol riots, reading, as New York’s Nita Prater reports, from a single eyewitness account published by the Federalist that claims “the mood among the demonstrators on January 6 was largely ‘positive,’ but there were ‘agents provocateurs’ and ‘fake Trump protesters’ in the crowd.” The essay was written by J. Michael Waller of the Center for Security Policy, which Southern Poverty Law Center describes as a “conspiracy-oriented mouthpiece for the growing anti-Muslim movement.”
This was familiar territory for Johnson, whose reaction to the assault on the Capitol has consistently tended toward downplaying its insurrectionary character and blaming it on everybody but the Trump supporters who were sent to the Capitol in a MAGA frenzy by the 45th president himself. Johnson has long been an aficionado of the kind of beliefs found most often in the more sequestered avenues of right-wing social media. He clung, for example, to the hydroxychloroquine “cure” for COVID-19 even after Trump stopped promoting it.
Johnson, who came to the Senate by upsetting the chronically underfunded Russ Feingold in 2010 and then beating him again in a 2016 rematch, used to come across as boring and unoriginal. Not any more, notes veteran Wisconsin journalist Bruce Murphy:
It’s remarkable to see the transformation of Johnson, who ran as a businessman concerned about the federal deficit and was consumed by the issue in his early years. He has gradually transformed into a collector of crackpot theories and conspiracies and one of the strangest senators serving today.
Johnson is up for reelection in 2022, and it’s possible he’s decided to hang it up then and just let his freak flag fly in the interim (he hasn’t announced his intentions). More likely, he’s the new symbol of battleground-state congressional representation, focused solely on the the most intense kind of base mobilization on the theory that there aren’t enough swing voters left to matter, or that they can be convinced the other side is even more extreme. Look at what happened in the one state arguably more divided than Wisconsin: Georgia, where Republican Senate incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler ran to the right of Attila the Hun in a losing effort in January. And for that matter, their vanquishers, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, are unquestionably the most liberal Democrats to win statewide since, well, the beginning of time.
The bottom line is that in this Trump-infected era, battleground-state political campaigns are more likely to feel like the Spanish Civil War than any contest of ideas in which practical-minded pols seek to appeal to “reasonable voters” with an “open mind.” Johnson’s Wisconsin colleague Tammy Baldwin used to be considered quite left-of-center. Now she’s her state’s sole senatorial ambassador to Planet Earth, at least until Ron Johnson leaves Washington or gets a grip.