Why Democrats Aren’t Attacking Ron Johnson for His Outlandish Comments

Ron Johnson has a history of making outlandish comments. But Democrats aren’t focusing on those for now.

Ron Johnson has a history of making outlandish comments. But Democrats aren’t focusing on those for now.

If you don’t live in Wisconsin, you probably know Ron Johnson as the senator who has suggested gargling with mouthwash to ward off the coronavirus. Or, you might know him as the guy who has said Jan. 6 didn’t “seem like an armed insurrection.” Up until this weekend, he was also the Republican dragging his feet on whether to run fora third Senate term.

On Sunday, Johnson finally jumped in. And Democrats responded immediately with a television ad that provided an early glimpse of their 2022 messaging.

Noticeably absent from the ad, which was sponsored by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, are Johnson’s stances on two of the biggest issues that the country is facing: the pandemic and political violence. It doesn’t mention that he’s questioned the efficacy of vaccines, or has used his perch on the Homeland Security Committee to amplify Donald Trump’s false claims about a stolen election. In fact, it doesn’t mention any of the incendiary comments that have landed him in the national spotlight.

Instead, the ad begins: “Has Ron Johnson been looking out for himself, or you?” It cites an AP headline, “Report: Johnson pushed for tax break benefitting megadonors.”

Cut-and-paste attacks

In Washington, Democrats bash Trump and his allies for elevating conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and for sowing misinformation about the coronavirus. But if Wisconsin is an indicator of what’s to come, Democrats seem to be gravitating toward conventional candidate attack lines that have little to do with the political outrage of the moment.

For the 2022 midterms, Democrats may be betting that the generic conventions that have worked in countless campaigns — attacking candidates’ voting records, elevating so-called “kitchen-table” issues — are more likely to move the voters they need to reach than righteous condemnation over fringe ideas. It’s a return to the plutocrat-bashing that was so successful for Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election against Mitt Romney, and a rejection of Terry McAuliffe’s more recent efforts to anchor Glenn Youngkin to Trump in the Virginia governor’s race.

They might be hoping to reach the surprisingly large group of Wisconsin voters who haven’t formed an opinion of Johnson — just over 20 percent, according to polling data from the Marquette Law School.

Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, put it this way: “It’s what affects people more than what offends people.”

Top target

Wisconsin is one of the country’s most fiercely contested political battlegrounds. Since Trump won the state in 2016, shattering Hillary Clinton’s “blue wall,” Democrats have crawled their way back. In 2018, Tony Evers was elected governor and Senator Tammy Baldwin won re-election, both Democrats. In 2020, Biden won the state, by barely more than 20,000 votes.

That makes Johnson a top target for Democrats, who are hoping that defeating him will help them hang onto their Senate majority. Republican primaries are still sorting themselves out in Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona — which means that Johnson will be the Democratic Party’s chief villain for the next few months, too.

A Look Ahead to the 2022 U.S. Midterm Elections

In the Senate: Democrats have a razor-thin margin that could be upended with a single loss. Here are 10 races to watch.In the House: Republicans are already poised to capture enough seats to take control, thanks to redistricting and gerrymandering alone.Governors’ Races: Georgia’s race will be at the center of the political universe this year, but there are several important contests across the country.Key Issues: Both parties are preparing for abortion rights and voting rights to be defining topics.

Multiple Democrats are vying to take on Johnson, though they all entered the race before they knew he was running again. Among them are Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, along with Alex Lasry, an executive with the Milwaukee Bucks, and Tom Nelson, a county executive.

Did Trump change the game?

Johnson isn’t the only candidate who has repeated misinformation on the pandemic. In Pennsylvania, Mehmet Oz, a celebrity doctor who has advocated for using unproven drugs to treat Covid-19, could become the Senate nominee for Republicans. Will Democrats attack him for that, or would they go after him as a wealthy carpetbagger who has been living for years in New Jersey?

In the pre-Trump world, Democrats actively rooted for opponents known for making outlandish or false statements, because they made for easier targets. Take Todd Akin, a Missouri Senate candidate who was ostracized from the Republican Party in 2012 for saying: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Claire McCaskill, the Democrat who defeated Akin, later confessed to shotgunning a beer when Akin won the G.O.P. primary.

Now, however, many Democrats doubt that comments like Akin’s would register with voters in the same way.

“The difference would be that as soon as it happened, there would just be a chorus on the right that would just say, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, that’s true. A woman’s body can just shut that down,'” said Jason Kander, a Democrat who fell short in the 2016 Missouri Senate race.

Candidates, taking their cues from Trump, have also learned to recast their gaffes as bold truth-telling. As Johnson wrote in his announcement in The Wall Street Journal, “Countless people have encouraged me to run, saying they rely on me to be their voice, 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.”

Partisanship has also deepened since the pre-Trump era. Even if some voters find certain rhetoric to be unsavory, they would rather not vote for someone who would build the opposing party’s majority. They’re voting against not just the candidate on the ballot in front of them, but also Nancy Pelosi or Mitch McConnell.

And then there’s the simple magnitude of the challenge: If Democrats are going to mention the things that they find to be the most outlandish, they then have to spend time explaining why it’s outlandish.

“Democrats are going to have to come up with some new messaging, because everything they’re talking about now is old,” said Brandon Scholz, a Republican and former strategist based in Wisconsin. “They have covered everything he’s said.”

It might just be easier to discredit the messenger, rather than the message. As Wikler, the Democratic state chairman, explained it, the allegations about Johnson’s self-dealing are more likely to break through to ordinary Wisconsinites than his comments about the coronavirus or the Capitol riot.

“For voters that aren’t paying attention closely to politics from day to day,” he said, “that’s the stuff that feels most extreme and disappointing.”

Image

What to read tonight

A New York Times analysis of climate data by Krishna Karra and Tim Wallace found that temperatures in the United States last year “set more all-time heat and cold records than any other year since 1994.”

The Justice Department is forming a unit to combat domestic terrorism, Katie Benner reports.

“Harry Reid lived for the Senate floor. He also lived on it,” writes Carl Hulse in a remembrance of the late Senate majority leader, who will lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda on Wednesday.

Image

BRIEFING BOOK

Image

In his speech, President Biden pressed the Senate to alter the filibuster.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

The New York Times covered every angle of Tuesday’s appearance by President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in Atlanta, where they delivered forceful, back-to-back addresses demanding the Senate act on federal voting rights legislation.

“We’re here today to stand against the forces in America that value power over principle,” Biden said, connecting those imposing new restrictions on voter access to the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. “The right to vote and have that vote counted is democracy’s threshold liberty.”

Reacting to the speech, Spencer Overton, head of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and the author of a book on voter suppression, told us: “Biden was not silent today. He drew clear lines that you’re either for democracy or you’re against democracy.”

Here are some highlights of our coverage:

Biden is pressing the Senate to alter the filibuster, an institutional rule that effectively requires a 60-vote threshold for most legislation, including two voting rights bills Republicans uniformly oppose.

That’s leading to an angry pushback from Senate Republicans, Carl Hulse reports. “Republicans are going to be furious over those references putting them on the side of Southern racists like George Wallace and Bull Connor,” he predicts.

In Georgia, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who stood up to Trump’s false claims of election fraud, accused Democrats of pushing for a “federal elections takeover.

Georgia has become the crucible for the national struggle over voting rights, Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Astead W. Herndon write.

Nick Corasaniti explains what the battle over voter rights and elections is fundamentally about.

Image

One more thing…

At a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Dr. Anthony Fauci was caught on a hot mic muttering under his breath after an exchange with Senator Roger Marshall, a Republican from Kansas.

Marshall had been pressing Fauci to share his personal financial disclosure forms, insinuating that the National Institutes of Health’s top infectious disease expert might be benefiting improperly from inside information.

“Wouldn’t you agree with me that you see things before members of Congress would see them, so that there’s an air of appearance that maybe some shenanigans are going on?” Marshall said. His staff had been unable to find the forms, he added.

Fauci replied that Marshall was “totally incorrect” and that his records were publicly available.

“What a moron,” Fauci could be heard whispering afterward. “Jesus Christ.”

Asked about the encounter, an NIH spokesperson replied, “Dr. Fauci’s public financial disclosure reports are releasable through the Ethics in Government Act.” She added: “Anyone can obtain them by submitting OGE Form 201 request, as described on the NIH FOIA portal website.”

Image

Is there anything you think we’re missing? Anything you want to see more of? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at onpolitics@nytimes.com.

Leave a Reply