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Ron Johnson tries for a rebrand after years of controversy and Democratic attacks

In a tough re-election battle in Wisconsin, the GOP senator needs to reach a shrinking universe of persuadable voters without alienating members of his own party.
Sen. Ron Johnson speaks to a reporter outside of the Senate Homeland Security hearing room on Aug. 3, 2022.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., outside the Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing room on Aug. 3.Bill Clark / AP

MILWAUKEE — For months, Wisconsin Republicans telegraphed their eagerness for Mandela Barnes, the state’s first Black lieutenant governor, to be the Democratic candidate to take on Sen. Ron Johnson.

Johnson’s GOP allies are already on the attack, aligning Barnes, a 35-year-old progressive, with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and calling him too “radical’’ for the purple state. 

But Johnson’s own strategy involves a more urgent task: rehabilitating his image. 

“I’m trying to tell people who I am. I’m pretty proud of what I’ve accomplished in life, both in the private sector and as a United States senator,” Johnson told NBC News in an interview Tuesday. “I’d much rather lead with that — I’d much rather win based on that message.” 

Johnson’s ability to reintroduce himself in a more positive light  — his favorability has been on a steady decline since 2019 among voters here — is key to Republicans’ strategy to retain a Senate seat that could ultimately determine control of the chamber, where Vice President Kamala Harris is now the tie-breaking vote. 

Several Johnson aides and allies said the senator has privately fumed over Democrats’ depiction of him as a Washington insider who’s profited off of his position and lost touch with the average Wisconsinite — a message that Barnes is now helping to steer.

“Lies and distortions are effective, they’re very good at it,” Johnson said, referring to Democrats. “I don’t want to engage in the politics of personal destruction. I will not become what they’ve become.” 

Image: Democratic Senate Candidate Mandela Barnes Campaigns In Milwaukee
Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes in Milwaukee on Aug. 7.Scott Olson / Getty Images

At the same time, the two-term senator cannot risk alienating members of his own party if he is to have any chance of survival in November; motivating a strong base turnout will be essential to victory in the battleground state. In the latest Marquette Law School poll, released Wednesday, Barnes leads Johnson by seven points with 51% support of those surveyed, to Johnson's 44%; the poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.2 percent. In June, Johnson trailed Barnes by just two points, 46% to 44%, within the margin of error."Barnes is getting a nice post-primary bump — not with partisans,” Marquette Law School poll director Charles Franklin said in a livestream presentation of the new poll. “He’s getting it from independents.”

And despite the early zeal to compete against Barnes, Republicans are also approaching their Wisconsin strategy with some caution, with some privately acknowledging they’ve learned lessons from Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock’s January 2021 win in Georgia. In that campaign, Republicans depicted Warnock as a radical and liberal — the same attack the GOP has already launched against Barnes. 

Johnson’s first TV ad focused on his personal biography, highlighting to residents in a state he has served since 2010 that he spent his younger years delivering newspapers and bailing hay on his uncle’s farm before marrying his wife, now of 45 years, and moving to Oshkosh to run a business with her brother. More positive ads focusing on his biography and his record in the Senate are to come, according to his campaign. It’s messaging that Johnson, who personally writes many of his own ads, hopes will blunt what he views as Barnes’ attempt to snatch the mantle as the candidate with the “working class” bonafides.

Johnson’s persona, meanwhile, has been increasingly defined by the controversial headlines he routinely captures over his statements on issues like abortion, his perpetuation of dubious and unproven Covid treatments, and even the recent FBI search of Mar-a-Lago, former President Donald Trump’s residence in Florida. Many of those headlines, he charges, are a result of his opponents and the media purposely contorting his words in an effort to demonize him. Johnson has also closely aligned himself with Trump, who won Wisconsin in 2016 but narrowly lost in 2020. This week, however, Johnson sidestepped questions about whether he’d invite Trump to campaign with him in the fall. 

A campaign aide said Johnson is most unnerved by Democrats’ depiction of him as a “billionaire bogeyman in it for himself” and at shots at his integrity, including two ethics complaints that were lodged against him. One, questioning his flights to Florida from Wisconsin, was dismissed. Still pending is a complaint over a $280,000 gift to a chief of staff — payments, according to his campaign, that were meant to cover the longtime employee’s cancer treatments. 

Johnson campaign spokeswoman Alexa Henning said in a statement to NBC News that those were legitimate gifts from the senator's personal funds that were fully disclosed.

"He is confident that this frivolous complaint, like a prior complaint filed by a Democrat operative that was dismissed last month, will be dismissed because he has done absolutely nothing wrong, and in fact, has been a faithful steward of taxpayer dollars," Henning said. "This is another pathetic and disgusting attempt by the Democrats and their allies in the media to smear the senator’s character and integrity."  

Still, negative TV ads targeting Barnes are also on deck. On Friday, the National Republican Senatorial Committee is expected to roll out an attack targeting Barnes. And Johnson said he ultimately plans “to tell the truth about Mandela Barnes and it won’t be very favorable.”

Barnes' campaign spokeswoman Maddy McDaniel said that “Ron Johnson will keep lying about Mandela Barnes to distract voters from his terrible record."

She added: "But it’s not working — Wisconsinites are going to elect Mandela Barnes in November," calling him a "champion for the middle class who understands what they are going through, not an out-of-touch politician like Ron Johnson.”

Still, GOP operatives in the state acknowledge concerns that anti-Warnock attacks may have helped motivate turnout among Black voters in Georgia, who came out in record numbers, fueling his victory. Black voters make up about one third of Georgia’s electorate, but they are a far smaller voting bloc in Wisconsin, where Black voter turnout was down overall in 2016 and 2020. 

“Warnock was really instructive,” said a Republican close to the Johnson campaign who was not authorized to speak on the record. Just as the Georgia runoff elections were underway in early January 2021, Trump false election claims reached a fever pitch. The Washington Post published details of an “extraordinary” call between the then president asking Georgia’s secretary of state to find “11,780 votes” from the 2020 election. “It was paired with the Trump stuff being at an all-time high," the Republican said. "That was a fatal combination. Here, it’s not a deep-seated fear but an understanding that you got to make sure you do this the right way. Democrats will try to play the race card every time.”

Asked if there were racial sensitivities at play in the contest, Johnson said, “Not on my part. I hope nobody brings race into this. I actually value what Dr. Martin Luther King talked about in his speech — that we need to judge people by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin.” 

Johnson has managed tall electoral tasks before. In 2016, he was expected to lose to Russ Feingold, the former Wisconsin senator, but he pulled out a victory.

However, Franklin said Johnson had lifted his unfavorables by this point in the race in 2016. Franklin also said that, looking in the arc of the surveys he’s taken since then, the number of people unfamiliar with Johnson — and who may still be persuadable — has shrunken to about 15%. And the number of those who hold an unfavorable view of Johnson has grown. 

“That’s not just one poll,” Franklin said of Johnson’s unfavorability. “That’s all the polls showing a really steady trend in this.” 

Franklin called Wisconsin Republicans “a strong Trumpy party” but said that about one-third of them were “not on that Trump train.”

Some operatives in both parties expressed surprise that Johnson’s team hadn’t begun targeting Barnes earlier, using his fundraising advantage to define Barnes — perhaps even the week before the primary, when three of Barnes’ opponents dropped from the race, clearing his path to the Democratic nomination.

One Wisconsin Republican close to Johnson said in an interview that there was some expectation among the GOP that an outside political committee would have taken on that task. A Democratic campaign operative who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter said that could have been a fatal misstep in what’s expected to be a close race.  

“It does appear that Republicans missed an opportunity,” the operative said. “If Mandela goes on to win, I think we will go back to the July and August period where they gave him a pass.”