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.
Feingold, 57, is an elusive target. In recent polls he has been under 50 percent when matched with potential Republican challengers. A political lifer, three years out of law school Feingold began a 10-year stint as a state senator, then became a U.S. senator. His cultivated quirkiness complicates attempts to cast him as a traditional liberal. In 1999, he was the only Democrat to vote against the motion to dismiss the impeachment charges against President Clinton, and in 2008 he voted against the now hugely unpopular bailout legislation -- TARP (the Troubled Asset Relief Program).
This year's turbulence has already visited Wisconsin. Facing a strong Republican challenge, Rep. David Obey, 71, who came to Congress in 1969 and chairs the Appropriations Committee, has decided to retire, even though his district has not voted Republican in a presidential election since 1984.
Johnson, a pro-life Lutheran, will highlight Feingold's opposition to banning late-term abortions: "I would like to ask Russ, 'Have you ever witnessed a partial-birth abortion?'" But this year the "social issues," as normally understood, are less important than the social issue as Johnson understands it -- the transformation of American society in a way foreshadowed in fiction.
What Samuel Johnson said of Milton's "Paradise Lost" -- "None ever wished it longer than it is" -- some readers have said of "Atlas Shrugged." Not Johnson, who thinks it is "too short" at 1,088 pages. Noting that Massachusetts "is requiring insurance companies to write polices at a loss," he says, "We're living it," referring to the novel's dystopian world in which society's producers are weighed down by parasitic non-producers.
From 2000 through 2008, sales of "Atlas Shrugged," which was published in 1957, averaged a remarkable 166,000 a year. Since Barack Obama took office, more than 600,000 copies have been sold. The novel's famous opening words -- "Who is John Galt?" -- refer to a creative capitalist, Rand's symbol of society's self-sufficient people who, weary of carrying on their shoulders the burden of dependent people, shrug. Ron Johnson would rather run.