Ron Johnson (R-FeverSwamp) Ekes Out Another Term in the Senate

ron-johnson-wins.jpg Wisconsin GOP Senate Candidate Ron Johnson Campaigns Ahead Of Midterms - Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images
ron-johnson-wins.jpg Wisconsin GOP Senate Candidate Ron Johnson Campaigns Ahead Of Midterms - Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Ron Johnson once said climate change is caused by sunspots. He said Covid could be treated by gargling mouthwash. He asserted the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol had been instigated by “fake Trump supporters,” even as the two-term Senate Republican reportedly tried to supply Vice President Mike Pence with a slate of fake electors to overturn the will of Wisconsin voters during the 2020 presidential election.

Wisconsin voters didn’t mind so much — or at least an ever-so-slight majority of them didn’t. Johnson narrowly defeated Democrat Mandela Barnes, with the contest being too close to call until Wednesday morning, when several networks declared him the winner. Johnson declared himself such Tuesday night while accusing the media of sandbagging the call.

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“Truth has prevailed over lies,” the conspiracy theorist said of the race.

Attacking Johnson’s conspiracies was never part of Democrats’ game plan. “That’s part of the background noise here,” Ben Wikler, the chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, told Rolling Stone last month. “If you’re undecided about Ron Johnson now, it’s probably baked in that you’re okay with the mouthwash.” Instead, they painted Johnson as a wealthy elite who had it out for the working class. On the campaign trail, Barnes emphasized his humble roots as the son of a schoolteacher and a union steelworker. He also lambasted Johnson’s role as chief architect of the 2017 tax law and, in the race’s last weeks, Johnson’s vow to make Social Security subject to annual congressional approval.

The latter earned a special rebuke from former President Barack Obama during a campaign swing in Milwaukee. “They had long hours, and sore backs and bad knees to get that Social Security,” Obama told the crowd of Social Security recipients. “And if Ron Johnson doesn’t understand that,” Obama continued, “he should not be your senator from Wisconsin.”

Democrats had reason to stick to those issues. Barnes, the state’s 35-year-old lieutenant governor, had been embraced as a progressive darling as a supporter of the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, two issues some national Democrats worried would make him unelectable in the state. (That he’d cleared the once-crowded Democratic field before primary day did nothing to assuage concerns that he was the right choice.) Of greater concern was Barnes’ national political debut at the peak of 2020’s racial justice uprisings, as demanding police accountability had been a key component of that debut. “If we have the accountability we deserve … we wouldn’t be in the place that we are with this racial reckoning,” he said on MSNBC after Jacob Blake, a Black man, had been shot by a white police officer in Kenosha. Barnes’ position became instant fodder for an endless stream of racialized attack ads as the GOP homed in on crime as its winning issue.

“You can’t spend time just responding to bad faith attacks from Republicans, because that’s all they want to do, create more distractions,” Barnes said in an interview with Semafor in October.

Barnes led Johnson in the early stages of the campaign, but the incumbent pulled ahead in polling averages as the race entered its final weeks. Johnson’s win means it’s likely the balance of the Senate will come down to a Dec. 6 runoff between Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker in Georgia.

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