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.