MILWAUKEE -- Before what he calls "the jaw-dropping" events of the last 19 months -- TARP, the stimulus, Government Motors, the mistreatment of Chrysler's creditors, Obamacare, etc. -- the idea of running for office never crossed Ron Johnson's mind. He was, however, dry tinder -- he calls Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" his "foundational book" -- and now is ablaze, in an understated, upper-Midwestern way. This 55-year-old manufacturer of plastic products from Oshkosh is what the tea party looks like.
He is trim, gray-haired and suddenly gray-suited. For years he has worn jeans and running shoes to his office, but now, under spousal duress, he is trying to look senatorial -- "My wife upgraded me to brown shoes." He has been endorsed by the state party and will almost certainly win the September primary for the Republican nomination to run against Russ Feingold, who is seeking a fourth term in a year in which incumbency is considered a character flaw.
Former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson led Feingold in polls and froze the race on the Republican side before deciding not to run. But in this season of simmering resentment of the political class, a neophyte such as Johnson might be a stronger candidate than a recycled executive. Johnson can fund himself. Asked how much of his wealth he will spend, if necessary, his answer is as simple as it is swift: "All of it."
The theme of his campaign, the genesis of which was an invitation to address a tea party rally, is: "First of all, freedom." Then? "Then you've got to put meat on the bones." He gets much of his meat from The Wall Street Journal's opinion pages. And from a Wisconsin congressman, Paul Ryan, whose "road map" for entitlement reform Johnson praises. Health care? "Mitch Daniels has the solution." Indiana's Republican governor has offered state employees the choice of consumer-controlled Health Savings Accounts, and 70 percent of Indiana state workers now choose them.
"The most basic right," Johnson says, "is the right to keep your property." Remembering the golden age when, thanks to Ronald Reagan, the top income tax rate was 28 percent, Johnson says: "For a brief moment we were 72 percent free." Johnson's daughter -- now a nurse in neonatal intensive care -- was born with a serious heart defect. The operations "when her heart was only the size of a small plum" made him passionate about protecting the incentives that bring forth excellent physicians.