Just by walking down Oregon Street in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, it’s hard to tell that the Fate of Democracy in America resides here. At the end of the street, The Ron Johnson for U.S. Senate campaign headquarters inhabits a large brick building fronted by stately white columns. The building rests across the street from the vast Jeld Wen premium wood door plant, and just north of the Bottoms Up Bar, where t-shirted patrons spend afternoons drinking to forget the problems U.S. Senate candidates promise to solve. (It is one of five bars within one square city block.)
Oshkosh isn’t exactly the epicenter of Wisconsin politics. No statewide political figure has been elected from Oshkosh since 1899, when Emmett Hicks served as the state’s Attorney General. Oshkosh did make statewide political news a decade ago, when one of its adult bookstores found a former state senator offering an undercover police officer the opportunity to “munch” on his privates, thus creating the most entertaining arrest report in Wisconsin political history.
Inside the Johnson headquarters, bespectacled 31 year-old campaign manager Juston Johnson (no relation to Ron) rubs the top of his prematurely bald head. He’s just gotten a call from the Wall Street Journal asking to talk about Johnson’s upstart campaign. “I’m terrible at talking to the press,” he complains, and passes the call off to Kristin Ruesch, his newly minted communications director.
It’s been a dizzying six-week stretch for Juston, as 55 year-old Ron Johnson has gone from being an unknown plastics manufacturer from Oshkosh to getting calls from the Wall Street Journal about his campaign against 18-year Democratic incumbent U.S. Senator Russ Feingold.
Hopes for large Republican electoral gains are high in June of 2010. Low approval ratings for President Obama and the Democrat-controlled Congress have opened up the possibility for Republicans to take back the U.S. House of Representatives – a scenario which had been unthinkable mere months ago. A dyspeptic American public, weary from two years of high unemployment, appears poised to toss out the Democrats they have deemed ineffective.
There are even rumblings that the GOP wave could win Republicans back control of the U.S. Senate, which Democrats hold by a 59-41 margin. The recent election of Republican Scott Brown from Massachusetts has a number of GOP challengers feeling that they can ride a wave of voter discontent with Democrats into the Senate. But in order to regain the majority, Republicans would have to sweep ten heavily contested contests around the country - including races in traditional Democratic strongholds like California, Illinois, and Washington.
Ron Johnson from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, would be the tenth.
Wisconsin has elected one Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1963 (Bob Kasten, who defeated Wisconsin political icon Gaylord Nelson in 1980.) But amazingly, a Ron Johnson win doesn’t seem impossible early in 2010. A new poll from a Democrat pollster has Johnson within two percentage points of Feingold, 45% to 43%, despite Johnson only being in the race for a little over a month.
Feingold is no easy target. Elected since 1992, he has cultivated his reputation as a “maverick,” willing to break ranks with his party on fiscal issues. He aims to be the pluripotent senator – able to adapt to whatever political environment suits him at the time. However, his recent votes for the controversial health care overhaul and the expensive and ineffective “stimulus” bill may have weakened him irreparably.
Feingold’s weakened state has manifested itself in the early polling. Yet Juston is skeptical of the numbers. He notes that even lesser-known Republican Dave Westlake polls at 38% against Feingold, meaning Johnson is only a few percentage points above what’s known in politics as the “ham sandwich” number. (This is the number that a ham sandwich would get if it were placed on a ballot against an incumbent – presumably listed as “Sandwich, Ham.”)
Furthermore, the poll purports to have a sample made up of half 2008 Obama presidential voters and half McCain voters. This makes it seems as if the poll is balanced, but in reality, Obama won Wisconsin by thirteen percentage points – leading Juston to think Republicans may be overrepresented. Then again, it’s only June 30th – it’s entirely possible that we could fighting the machines by the time the general election rolls around in November.
The inside of the RonJon campaign office is vast. (“RonJon” is a nickname some of his staff have come up with for Johnson - they considered “RoJo,” but thought it made him sound too much like a guy who designs sweaters for poodles.) This floor of the building used to be either a law office, or real estate office – nobody can really say, as it has sat dormant for years. The office has been sectioned off into a sea of cubicles, almost all of which sit empty, waiting for the – fingers crossed - eventual army of volunteers. Currently, Johnson has 17 paid staff members.
Strewn around the makeshift office walls are boxes of t-shirts, yard signs, and bumper stickers. It has the look of a campaign office that has unpacked all of its belongings hastily. Mostly because that’s exactly what has happened.
Despite being considered the U.S. Senate race that could regain Republicans the majority in 2010, the campaign can’t seem to get their internet to work. This morning, RonJon is conducting an interview with conservative Milwaukee talk radio host Charlie Sykes. More than three people appear to be streaming the broadcast live over the internet, so the entire network goes down. Throughout the day, depending on how many people are online at the same time, the wireless signal comes and goes. If someone dared to attempt downloading a Lady Gaga album, it could knock the Ron Johnson campaign offline for three days.
Back in his cubicle, amongst the boxes, Jack Jablonski is settling in not looking forward to the long weeks ahead. Jablonski, the 36-year old deputy campaign manager, has run campaigns for Wisconsin state senate candidates for a decade. He recently left a congressional race in Western Wisconsin to help RonJon. He is one of the oldest staffers in the office.
“Oshkosh is like a working man’s Eau Claire,” he says, as one who had spent many nights sleeping under a desk in Eau Claire running other campaigns. He’s miserable and wants to go home. Jablonski’s wife, Courtney, gave birth to his first child, a boy, just weeks ago – and Jack wants to see him.
In his remote cubicle, Jablonski is holding court with the other staffers, detailing a study he read that could bode well for RonJon. Apparently, some political scientists have determined that voters are more likely to support the candidate with the narrower face. It makes them look more trustworthy, or something. These researchers actually used Feingold’s 2004 race against construction company owner Tim Michels to prove their point – Feingold’s face was narrower that Michels’ giant meaty head, so study respondents correctly picked Feingold as the winner by overwhelming margins.
“Ron’s face is even narrower than Feingold’s” Jablonski points out. “Let’s all just go home – it’s a done deal,” he jokes.
It has fallen to the tightly-wound Jablonski to prepare RonJon for the rigors of campaign question-and-answer sessions. (Friends say that Jablonski may be the only person on earth that actually has to drink Red Bull to calm himself down.) The early days of Johnson’s campaign have been beset by verbal stumbles and misstatements, such as when Johnson suggested he was running for office because he heard Fox News consultant (and notable prostitute enthusiast) Dick Morris say that “some rich guy” should take Feingold on. “I told Ron to never utter the words ‘Dick Morris’ in public again,” said Juston.
Clearly, in mid-June, Johnson isn’t exactly a skilled interlocutor, which has become the central focus of his campaign. “Ron is prone to mistakes,” said one staffer, explaining why they were keeping him away from the media for the time being.
One of the times RonJon’s inexperience as a public speaker became most evident occurred in early June, when the new candidate was speaking in front of a conservative group that should have been predisposed to his way of thinking. Johnson was asked a question about illegal immigration, and began giving a good answer.
Johnson was telling the group all about how we need to secure the border and enforce the laws on the books. He could have ended there and been just fine. Then, when he should have stopped talking, he started asking himself rhetorical questions. Johnson, not knowing what was going to come out of his mouth next, said, out loud, “of course, that brings up the question – what do we do with the illegal immigrants that are already here?”
Johnson’s staff was horrified. Clearly, the only reason to ask yourself a hypothetical question out loud is because you probably don’t know the answer. And not knowing things isn’t exactly a strong resume point when applying to be a U.S. senator.
As a result, Jablonski, Juston, and Ruesch began a “candidate boot camp” for the new candidate. They locked Johnson into a room for three days in mid-June, firing questions at him. These quickly became known as the “murder sessions.” Among the questions Johnson was posed:
- Should British Petroleum (BP) be required to suspend its dividend payouts to ensure set aside for liabilities or put it into an escrow fund?
- What do you feel caused the financial crash?
- When is it appropriate to use the filibuster?
- Who is responsible for preserving and protecting the Gulf of Mexico?
- Is Obama a Marxist?
- Are you the tea party candidate?
- Are you in favor of a Fair or Flat Tax?
- Should we audit the Fed?
Both Jablonski and Juston acknowledge that RonJon is a smart guy. “He’s said ‘every day I wake up, my goal is not to say something that will completely sink my campaign,’” recounts Juston. “And he’s a very willing learner – he’d sit and study policy papers all day if he could,” he said. “But he’s also very impatient and sensitive to his own vulnerabilities. He can’t stand just saying ‘I don’t know,’ when asked a tough question. It’s our job to teach him that sometimes it’s okay to give a 10 to 15 second answer, then pivot to jobs and the economy.”
Despite Johnson’s willingness to learn, these behind-the-scenes question and answer sessions often got testy. At times, Johnson’s obduracy ground the meetings to a halt. He didn’t think he’d be asked many of the questions his staff posed him. They often had to go back over issues several times.
For instance, staff told him three separate times not to say he’s a better candidate than Dave Westlake because he has more money. Then, at a candidate forum in Brookfield, Johnson answered a question about why he’d be a better candidate by essentially saying he had more money.
Through the murder sessions, Jablonski says he became convinced Johnson was smart and well-read enough to pull this off. But Johnson was clearly a neophyte, while Feingold has been at the political game for over 30 years now. “For eighteen years, taxpayers have been paying Russ Feingold to know everything there is to know about the federal government,” Jablonski says. “And Ron has to learn it all in, like, two weeks. Can you name anyone in the state who would be able to step into a situation like that?”
In June, Democrats are betting Johnson can’t. That is why they’ve put a tracker on him – a paid staffer carrying a video camera, recording Johnson’s every utterance. Johnson’s staffers say the tracker follows within two feet of Johnson any time he’s in public, which tends to creep out many of the voters RonJon talks to. All so they can capture a “Macaca moment.” (In 2006, Virginia Senator George Allen’s campaign was felled by a tracker who caught him on camera calling an Indian-American questioner “Macaca” – a term that nobody really had ever heard of, but voters instinctively assumed was bad.)
Johnson’s staff said the Democrat tracker was particularly obnoxious during 4th of July parades in Oshkosh, Franklin, Hartford, Menomonee Falls and Sheboygan, where Johnson tried to walk the parade route and talk to people with his tracker by his side. Staffers said they thought about giving the tracker some campaign lit and asking him to hand it out, as long as he was going to be following Johnson everywhere. They openly wondered if they should hire a tracker to follow the tracker, just to show how obnoxious the whole situation was. (They mention Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker also has a Democratic tracker, but that his tracker is actually a pretty cool guy.)
Over in her own office, Kristin Ruesch has just finished the call with the Wall Street Journal that Juston sent her way earlier in the day. She’s still waiting for Oshkosh’s charms to present themselves to her, as she’s only been a part of the campaign for a little over a week - having left her position as communications director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin. In order to stay motivated, she ends each day by reading a short passage from former President Bush advisor Karen Hughes’ book, “Ten Minutes From Normal.” (Ruesch is on the board of Wisconsin Women in Government, and got to meet Hughes, her hero, just three months ago.)
The call from the Wall Street Journal was to find out whether Johnson has fallen out of favor with the Tea Party movement, which many people believe helped spawn his campaign. In the early days of his candidacy, RonJon has come out in favor of the Patriot Act, which many libertarians in the right-wing Tea Party movement believe to be an infringement on their civil liberties. Johnson believes it is necessary for the protection of our country, but several Tea Party groups have opposed his candidacy as a result. (One such group, the “Wisconsin 9/12 Project,” released a “poll” of its members that showed Dave Westlake beating Johnson 95% to 5% - which likely means exactly 20 people took the poll.)
This is quite a sea change for Johnson, whose first major public appearance as a potential U.S. Senate candidate took place at a Tea Party rally on the Wisconsin Capitol lawn on April 15th. On Tax Day, Johnson gave an impassioned speech before conservatives and libertarians – at the time, he was just known as “the rich guy who might run against Feingold.” And it took him a full month after that speech to formally declare his candidacy.
In May, Feingold was more than willing to play up Johnson’s connections to the Tea Party. In Kentucky, “Tea Party candidate” Rand Paul won a landslide victory in the Republican U.S. Senate primary, and celebrated his victory by announcing that he’d like to see a portion of the 1964 Civil Rights Act repealed.
After the Rand Paul Civil Right imbroglio, Feingold pounced on RonJon. “[Johnson] refused to say whether he favors the continuation of Social Security and Medicare. He hasn’t even said he supports the Civil Right Act,” Feingold said in a June 16th interview with Politico.com.
Feingold also took some shots at Johnson during the senator’s speech to the Wisconsin Democratic Convention on Friday, June 11th. Feingold said he fought against deregulating the banks in 1999, while “Mr. Johnson was silent.” Feingold said he fought against President Bush’s policy to let corporate America “run wild,” and, again, “Mr. Johnson was silent.”
The mere mention of these Feingold quote gets Jablonski red-faced with anger.
“So let me get this straight – Ron Johnson is just some guy up in Oshkosh running a business and employing people, and Feingold thinks he should be putting out press releases saying he supports the Civil Rights Act? What the fuck? Maybe we should issue a statement accusing Russ Feingold of never saying he opposed child abuse. Or say ‘Russ Feingold sat idly by while Brett Favre bought a cell phone.’ It’s ridiculous.”
Furthermore, later in the Politico interview, Feingold actually portrayed himself as the Tea Party candidate, pointing out that he agrees with many of their factions on the Patriot Act. Feingold said Johnson “doesn’t match up with some of their views. He’s trying to use the label of the tea party, but under closer scrutiny, they’re going to realize they don’t match up.”
This puzzled Ruesch. “So in the same interview, Feingold claims Ron is a racist because he’s a Tea Party member, but then criticizes him for not being enough of a Tea Party member? Which is it?” she asks.
One of Feingold’s initial shots at Johnson dealt with RonJon’s wealth. Feingold pointed out that Johnson would be the 70th millionaire in the Senate, and pleaded for a little “economic diversity.”
When Johnson first entered the race, he said he would spend $15 million on the campaign if he had to. From this figure, political experts tried to extrapolate how much Johnson was actually worth - $100 million? $200 million?
In fact, Johnson was worth almost exactly what he said he would spend – around $15 million. When asked by Washington Post columnist George F. Will how much of his personal wealth he would use on the campaign, he said “all of it.”
But Johnson was used to giving away his money. Between 2005 and 2009, Ron had donated $2.2 million to charity, much of it to Catholic schools in the Oshkosh area. But the fact that RonJon often gave gift anonymously hurt him when trying to accumulate name ID for his campaign. “He’s a rich guy in a small town, but nobody knows who he is,” said Juston.
A millionaire challenger is actually something Feingold clearly dreaded. Part of the famous McCain-Feingold campaign law was a provision that prevented independently wealthy candidates from spending their own money on their campaign. This so-called “millionaire’s amendment” was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008.
Feingold likely knew that the only way a challenger could catch up with his $5 million warchest was for a millionaire to spend his or her own money. So he authored a law to keep them from taking him on. But now, thanks to the law being declared unconstitutional, Feingold had a capable millionaire on his doorstep.
While the campaign dealt with these little brush fires, Juston knew these Feingold jabs were tepid compared to what was headed their way as the campaign progresses. In fact, he was surprised Feingold and his surrogates hadn’t been more aggressive up to that point. He said that if he were running the Democrats’ campaign at that point, he’d be spending millions to “kill the Johnson campaign in its crib.” He notes that currently, Johnson “doesn’t have the resources or staff infrastructure to respond to anything big they could throw at us.”
Soon, he would get his wish.
Photos by Allen Fredrickson