Senator Ron Johnson has survived another hairy reelection bid to win a third term in Wisconsin. This time, however, no one should be surprised.
Six years ago, Johnson’s defeat seemed so likely that the national Republican Party pulled its money from Wisconsin, all but conceding his race. Johnson won anyway. This past August, a Marquette poll found him trailing his Democratic opponent, Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, by seven points, 51 percent to 44 percent. This morning, when the race was called, Johnson was leading Barnes by about one percentage point.
In the end, Johnson’s race wasn’t much of a nail-biter. Polls swung in his favor beginning in September, seemingly the result of a ruthless, well-funded—and to many Barnes supporters, downright racist—ad campaign blaming the lieutenant governor for a rise in violent crime and picturing him alongside other progressive Democrats of color.
Yet to Democrats, no setback in the scramble for the Senate was likely more frustrating than their failure to oust Johnson. The former businessman’s turn toward the conspiratorial wing of the GOP over the past few years had made him one of the worst-polling senators in the country and easily the most vulnerable Republican incumbent up for reelection this fall. Johnson became a vocal critic of COVID-19 vaccines and a champion of what he called “the vaccine injured.” He was embroiled in both impeachments of former President Donald Trump and downplayed the Capitol riot on January 6, 2021.
In Barnes, many Democrats believed they had found a rising national star—a 35-year-old onetime community organizer from a union family who could excite Black voters in Milwaukee and progressives in Madison while winning over working-class white voters in the rest of the state. Barnes, a former state legislator who won election as lieutenant governor in 2018, led the Democratic Senate primary from the get-go and ultimately won in a walk after his opponents dropped out and endorsed him in the closing weeks of the campaign. Barnes courted labor unions aggressively and broadcast the sunniest of TV ads that showed him unpacking groceries and hitting baseballs off a tee.
But Barnes had emerged from the progressive left’s Working Families Party, an ally of Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Exploiting fears over rising crime, Johnson’s campaign resurfaced images and quotes linking Barnes to the “Defund the police” movement from the aftermath of the George Floyd protests in 2020. Polls over the summer showed Barnes ahead of Johnson, but the Democrat’s standing dropped after weeks of crime-focused negative ads.
Wisconsin Democrats are left to wonder whether another one of their choices in the August primary—Alex Lasry, the son of a co-owner of the Milwaukee Bucks; Tom Nelson, a county executive; or Sarah Godlewski, the state treasurer—would have stood a better chance against Johnson. Perhaps Johnson has benefited from a bit of luck: The three years he has been on the ballot—2010, 2016, and now 2022—have all been relatively strong Republican years. (A few red-state Democratic senators, including Jon Tester of Montana and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, have had the similar good fortune of running in favorable environments for their party.)
Yet as I wrote last month, the polls that have pointed to Johnson’s unpopularity might not be capturing the full wellspring of his support in Wisconsin. To a person, the Republicans with whom I spoke said they viewed Johnson’s seemingly quixotic fight against conventional COVID treatments and vaccines not as a liability but as a strength, and that it was a big reason they supported him. During his first term, Johnson seemed to embody a traditional conservatism of low taxes and low spending, the small-government ethos of a fellow Wisconsite, former House Speaker Paul Ryan. He still champions those policies, but he has become far more closely linked to the establishment-toppling, media-fighting style of Trump. Johnson now inspires more passion on both sides, whether it’s hatred from his critics or sympathy from his supporters. “The news is just crucifying him constantly. They made him out to be a horrible person, and he’s not,” Ann Calvin, a 57-year-old who worked for years in an assisted-living facility, told me during my visit.
Like Trump, Johnson has also made a habit of defying expectations and foiling his critics. He did so again yesterday, completing his second comeback in six years to deprive Democrats of a seat that once seemed theirs to lose.