Ron Johnson’s October Comeback?

How Johnson tightened the polls, yet remains the underdog.

Ron Johnson speaks with reporters in Green Bay, Wis. on May 13.
AP Photo/Scott Bauer
Oct. 14, 2016, 5 p.m.

While Paul Ry­an and Re­ince Priebus are con­sist­ently busy nav­ig­at­ing the GOP through Don­ald Trump’s crisis du jour, an­oth­er Wis­con­sin Re­pub­lic­an is hav­ing a sur­pris­ingly good month.

Sen. Ron John­son, all but aban­doned re­cently by na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­ans, has de­b­uted a series of pos­it­ive spots that strategists on both sides of the aisle said have broken through the noise and that re­cent pub­lic polling sug­gests have im­proved his fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ings. He’s now with­in a couple points of former Demo­crat­ic Sen. Russ Fein­gold, who has been favored for the en­tirety of the race.

Still, John­son’s path to vic­tory re­mains nar­row.

The state con­tin­ues to trend blue in pres­id­en­tial cycles. Wis­con­sin has not sent a Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­or to Wash­ing­ton in a pres­id­en­tial year since 1980, and it has handed Demo­crats wins at the pres­id­en­tial level in every elec­tion since 1984. That streak is likely to con­tin­ue, as Hil­lary Clin­ton should carry the state without much trouble.

Mean­while, Trump’s de­clar­a­tion of war against Ry­an and oth­er Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers puts John­son in an un­en­vi­able spot as he seeks to hold on to Trump sup­port­ers.

Money is an­oth­er is­sue for John­son, whom Roll Call ranked the 25th richest mem­ber of Con­gress as of last year. Fein­gold, a fun­drais­ing jug­ger­naut, had a cash-on-hand ad­vant­age of more than $1 mil­lion at the end of the last FEC fil­ing dead­line, and the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee cut its ad re­ser­va­tions early this month.

Yet two new pub­lic polls that show the race with­in a few points and a $750,000 in­vest­ment this week from the Club for Growth sug­gest John­son has kept the race more com­pet­it­ive than many would have ex­pec­ted at this point. Wis­con­sin strategists cred­ited John­son’s im­prov­ing poll res­ults to a series of pos­it­ive spots high­light­ing Wis­con­sin­ites that John­son has helped while in the Sen­ate.

“I think they’ve done a really nice job with some ads that built his im­age, helped people un­der­stand who he was and that he’s a caring, com­pas­sion­ate, good guy, and now they’ve be­gun pro­sec­ut­ing the case against Fein­gold,” Re­pub­lic­an strategist Mark Graul said. “I think it’s a good one-two punch that has him in a po­s­i­tion to win a race that far too many people had writ­ten off way too early.”

While big, na­tion­al stor­ies and trends made life in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult for Re­pub­lic­ans across the coun­try, the John­son cam­paign broke through by go­ing very, very small. One ad fo­cuses en­tirely on the story of one fam­ily that John­son helped to ad­opt a child from the Demo­crat­ic Re­pub­lic of Congo, while an­oth­er points out a spe­cif­ic job-train­ing pro­ject in Mil­wau­kee that John­son has sup­por­ted. In a third, John­son used a white­board setup sim­il­ar to the ads that helped him un­seat Fein­gold in 2010.

The ads, strategists on both sides of the aisle said, have helped John­son to define him­self in pos­it­ive terms, something he has struggled to do throughout his term in the Sen­ate.

Com­pet­ing for at­ten­tion with one of the most polit­ic­ally ex­plos­ive state-level polit­ic­al fights in the coun­try, and without the kind of strong per­son­al brand that would help him stand out, John­son entered this race without the name-ID ad­vant­age nor­mally ex­pec­ted of an in­cum­bent. The prob­lem was com­poun­ded be­cause he is fa­cing a former three-term sen­at­or with far more re­cog­ni­tion than an av­er­age chal­lenger.

Wis­con­sin Re­pub­lic­an op­er­at­ive Bri­an Fra­ley said that after five years of do­ing a “ter­rible” job tout­ing his ac­com­plish­ments, John­son “spent some time work­ing on telling the story of what he’s do­ing … and that has helped.”

Privately, some Demo­crats con­cede that the race has tightened some­what. But they in­sist that John­son’s move­ment is the res­ult of a few good weeks for John­son rather than a fun­da­ment­al change in the state of the race.

“I think the race is set­tling back to the same place that the 2012 elect­or­ate settled, which is 5 to 7-point wins for the Demo­crats in pres­id­en­tial years,” said Mil­wau­kee-based Demo­crat­ic con­sult­ant Sachin Ch­heda.

One Demo­crat­ic strategist, re­flect­ing on John­son’s ads and poll move­ment, said, “Some­times you slip one in there where out­side events line up just right. … Kudos to him and his team. I’m just not sure I think they have an­oth­er ma­gic bul­let in them like that.”

So far, out­side groups seem to agree with Demo­crats’ as­sess­ment that the turnout dy­nam­ics of a pres­id­en­tial year in Wis­con­sin make it dif­fi­cult for a Re­pub­lic­an to pull off a win. Neither the NR­SC nor the Sen­ate Lead­er­ship Fund have re­ser­va­tions in the race, though SLF spokes­man Ian Pri­or said the su­per PAC will be “closely watch­ing” the race “over the next sev­er­al days.”

An­oth­er Demo­crat­ic strategist brought up the 2012 race, when Sen. Tammy Bald­win was painted as a “lib­er­al crazy com­mie lefty uni­on thug,” yet she still pre­vailed over former Gov. Tommy Thompson. What mattered, the strategist said, was that “Demo­crat­ic turnout is high­er” in pres­id­en­tial years.

One im­port­ant chal­lenge fa­cing John­son over the next couple of weeks will be how to deal with Trump’s cam­paign, made all the more rel­ev­ant loc­ally by a strong anti-Trump move­ment among some con­ser­vat­ives in the state and Trump’s con­stant back-and-forth with Ry­an.

John­son will likely be pressed on his po­s­i­tion on Trump in two de­bates sched­uled with­in the next week. But one Demo­crat­ic strategist noted voters are un­likely to tune in closely enough be­neath the noise of the pres­id­en­tial to con­sider split­ting their bal­lots for John­son.

“I’m skep­tic­al that there are enough voters pay­ing at­ten­tion to that race and mak­ing an in­de­pend­ent de­cision about that race,” the strategist said.

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