When Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson (R) announced in January that despite promising to retire after his second term, he'd run for a third for the sake of the nation, party strategists wasted no time in dubbing him the most vulnerable Republican Senate incumbent this cycle.
But with just five weeks left until the midterm elections, Johnson is inching ahead in the polls against Democratic nominee Mandela Barnes, the state's lieutenant governor and a rising star on the left. As the clock runs out on Democrats' chance to seize a seat that seemed well within their reach, some are scratching their heads on what sort of political Kevlar Johnson's got on.
After all, with a far-right record like Johnson's, and in a swing state like Wisconsin, operatives believed there'd be so much for Democrats to work with-but with those political blessings comes a curse.
"One of the challenges with a candidate like Johnson is it is such a target-rich environment… there is just so much to work with," said Wisconsin Democratic strategist Joe Zepecki, who added it can be difficult with candidates like Johnson to choose "which of those narratives are the ones that are going to have the most profound impact."
"In this point in the cycle you can no longer throw the kitchen sink at [Johnson]… the information environment has most Wisconsin voters hiding under their couch cushions," Zepecki said.
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It's true there's much for Democrats to discuss when it comes to Johnson's public statements alone.
He has spread conspiracies about Covid-19, pushed against mass vaccinations and insisted the human immune system can handle itself just fine. He's suggested the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was not an "armed insurrection," despite the fact that it was an insurrection, with weapons. And though Johnson's declined to sign on to Sen. Lindsey Graham's (R-SC) latest national abortion ban proposal, he's supported national abortion bans in previous renditions.
That all, of course, is on top of Johnson's typical Republican chops, like supporting cutbacks to Medicare and Social Security, which Democrats in races nationwide love to chomp at.
Scot Ross, a second Wisconsin Democratic strategist, said of Democrats' various talking points, "I don't think any of those are not effective," but that Democrats could surely benefit from having "one message" across the board.
Instead of focusing on a narrow set of talking points, Democratic messengers have loosely fashioned Johnson into a Republican boogeyman.
Ads, some launched before Johnson even formally announced his re-election bid, have pinned the senator on gun control, taxes, abortion, outsourcing jobs, Social Security and Medicare, being a Washington insider and his lackadaisical response to the Jan. 6 riots. His Covid antics, including suggesting that gargling mouthwash can cure a Covid infection, have largely been left out of advertising, but have still percolated in the conversation.
"I think part of the challenge here for Democrats… They've kind of punched themselves out in Wisconsin," said Chris Hartline, spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who added that Wisconsin is "one of the places where everything is sort of lining up in the right way" for Republicans.
In contrast, Johnson and his Republican counterparts are operating as if they found their oppo gold, and are hammering it to bits: crime.
Messaging against Barnes in recent months has been almost singularly focused on crime, including Barnes' support for ending cash bail redirecting a portion of police budgets toward social services. In hammering that message, Republican strategists like Hartline believe that Johnson, in combination with outspending Barnes and launching television ads early, has moved the needle in his favor.
Hartline added he thinks Johnson is running "one of, if not the best campaign" in the country.
Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University, told The Daily Beast crime is an issue that can possibly sway swing voters and independents in Wisconsin.
"It's a pretty loud dog whistle, this particular set of ads [on crime]. But, what we do know is people are susceptible to that and people who are cross-pressured I think are, are potentially susceptible to those kinds of appeals," said Azari, referencing "cross-pressured" voters who may be liberal on some issues and conservative on others.
Azari also noted that some of Johnson's recent boost in the polls can be attributed to voters who identify as independent but lean conservative "coming home" to the GOP.
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She said Johnson, as an incumbent, innately has a "name recognition advantage, and people don't have to make the mental leap about what will it be like to be represented by [Barnes]."
A recent Marquette poll found Johnson leading the Senate race 49-48 while Democratic Gov. Tony Evers held about the same level of support at just under 50 percent. Barnes went from leading Johnson by approximately 3.8 points in this summer, according to FiveThirtyEight's aggregate, to falling behind by 1.9 points.
Zepecki doesn't make much of Republicans closing in on their disdain for Barnes. "They've poked their base with the cattle prod and now they hate Mandela Barnes. Water wet. Sky blue," he told The Daily Beast.
Wisconsin is notorious for close elections. In 2020, President Joe Biden beat former President Donald Trump by just .63%, while Trump defeated former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by just .77% in 2020.
The Barnes campaign in its final stretch of messaging is focusing on abortion, launching a "Ron Against Roe" tour around the state and a new ad calling out Johnson's record on the issue. Democrats nationwide have amplified abortion as an issue since the downfall of Roe v. Wade this summer, with polls showing the majority of Americans want to protect at least some degree of access to reproductive health.
"Ron Johnson is the most vulnerable Republican incumbent in the country, and the scrutiny on his record throughout this race has only made it more likely that voters in Wisconsin will send him packing this fall," Barnes campaign spokesperson Maddy McDaniel said in a statement to The Daily Beast.
"Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes is campaigning hard in every corner of the state and will continue to hold Johnson accountable for his support of an abortion ban with no exceptions for rape or incest, spending his time in Washington enriching his wealthy donors, and attacking Social Security and Medicare," McDaniel added.
The Johnson campaign did not respond to a request for comment
But even as the Barnes campaign mounts abortion as the final frontier for messaging against Johnson, Republicans, at least publicly, seem unfazed. Hartline quipped that there's little Democrats can say about Johnson now that hasn't been said before.
"He's leaning into abortion now," he said. "But it's not like it's new."
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