Opinion | How Is Senator Ron Johnson Still Competitive?

This happened in his 2016 race, which wound up being a rematch with former Senator Russ Feingold, whom Mr. Johnson unseated in 2010. For most of the campaign, Mr. Johnson trailed Mr. Feingold — in money and polling — and the national G.O.P. abandoned him to expected defeat. That fall, his campaign retooled and began running positive ads aimed at humanizing the senator, highlighting his work with orphans from Congo and his ties to the Joseph Project, a faith-based initiative connecting poor urban residents with manufacturing jobs. His favorability numbers began rising, along with the number of voters who said he cared about people like them.

Already in this cycle, Team Johnson has rolled out ads about the Joseph Project. And, for all of Mr. Johnson’s inherent MAGAness, his paid media has been that of a more conventional Republican, hitting Democrats on inflation and public safety. Keeping the race focused on these policy areas — while steering clear of more exotic issues — is considered his key to victory.

Of course, Ron being Ron, he cannot help but mouth off in ways that seem tailored to give a campaign manager a nervous tic. This isn’t new. In his 2010 run (the one where he suggested that climate change is caused by sunspots), his unpredictable verbal stylings were an enduring source of anxiety. His team basically put him on media lockdown for the closing two weeks of the race.

And it’s not just the daffy conspiracy stuff. Witness his podcast appearance on Tuesday, in which he said that Social Security and Medicare should be subject to regular review by Congress. At times, it can feel as if the senator gets up in the morning, looks in the mirror and asks: What can I say today that will get me tossed out of office?

Mr. Johnson’s defenders insist that these gaffes are, if not exactly part of the senator’s charm, at least in line with his image as a truth-teller — and that, in any event, the opposition is terrible at exploiting the blunders. Democrats always think they are going to sink the senator with one of his impolitic utterances, a person close to the Johnson campaign told me. But this Johnson ally points out that there have been so many statements and controversies over the years and very few of them really sink in or stick with people.

Translation: Plenty of Wisconsin voters came to terms with Mr. Johnson’s brand of crazy years ago.

Of course, there are degrees of outrageousness, and it may be that Mr. Johnson has finally crossed a line with his Covid-themed rantings, including spreading anti-vaccine misinformation and hawking unsubstantiated treatments. (Listerine anyone?) One interesting change in Marquette’s polling: In 2016, significantly more voters still said they didn’t know enough about him or didn’t have a clear opinion of him to give a “favorable” or an “unfavorable” rating. In the closing weeks of the race, his unfavorables stayed pretty steady, but he managed to move a fair number of voters from the “don’t know” column to the “favorable” column, said Charles Franklin, the poll’s director. But this time, Mr. Franklin noted, the senator’s brand is more established — and not in a good way. More people are familiar with him, “and the people getting to know him seem to be forming overwhelmingly unfavorable opinions.”

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/07/opinion/ron-johnson-wisconsin-senate.html