Is Ron Johnson Now the Favorite in Wisconsin's Key Senate Race?

Posted: Sep 22, 2022 10:25 AM
Is Ron Johnson Now the Favorite in Wisconsin's Key Senate Race?

I've just returned from a trip to rural Wisconsin, where I spoke at an event attended by a number of plugged-in conservatives who understand the state's political landscape very well.  Over the course of multiple discussions, two themes emerged: First, the Badger State's gubernatorial race between incumbent Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and GOP challenger Tim Michels is a coin flip.  The polls suggest that Evers is ahead by a hair, but as we've highlighted, Wisconsin polling has been especially bad in recent cycles, significantly underestimating Republican support.  The race looks and feels like a dead heat, they told me, as is so often the case in Wisconsin.  There are persuadable voters, of course, but the state is deeply polarized, and races often hinge on brute turnout.  In the Senate match-up, they were universally more confident that Sen. Ron Johnson, the incumbent Republican, is now leading and has a strong chance of re-election.

Johnson was first elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010, part of the nationwide backlash to the Obama administration.  He was left for political dead six years later, with national Republicans pulling resources away from a race that was considered to be a lost cause.  Not only did Johnson win, he won by three-and-a-half points, outperforming the polling average by about six percentage points.  It wasn't clear if Johnson was going to run again this cycle, but he ultimately took the plunge, and some of the polling over the summer was looking fairly bleak.  The famed Marquette poll showed him trailing by seven points in August.  But their new September numbers have the incumbent surging into the lead.  I'm told it's the first time Johnson has ever led in a Marquette poll.  Another public survey shows him up four points, which the folks I spoke with told me is roughly what they're seeing in the private data, too.  Johnson has a fractional advantage in the RCP average.  What explains the turnaround?  In short, his opponent is a radical, and Republicans are hammering him on his statements and record.  Wisconsinites are getting an education about Mandela Barnes, who is far to the left, and it seems many of them have serious reservations about sending him to the United States Senate.  Here's one tough ad a Mitch McConnell-aligned PAC has been running in the state:

The Senate Leadership Fund, a PAC aligned with Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, has launched its first ads post-Labor Day in Wisconsin, targeting Dem nominee Mandela Barnes on crime. The ads all have the same theme, arguing Barnes would make crime worse. The narrator in the 30-second TV ad says Barnes would eliminate cash bail “even after the Waukesha Christmas parade attack,” and supports “amnesty and sanctuary cities for illegals.” The narrator adds Barnes worked for a group that wants to defund the police and has a “long record of smearing police while spending your tax dollars on security for himself.”

This one is even more brutal and powerful because of how personal it is:

As Lt. Governor, Barnes made reckless and inaccurate comments in the wake of the Jacob Blake shooting, which was distorted early and often. His incendiary remarks about the police echoed throughout the state as the city of Kenosha burned, lit aflame by rioters.  The state's response was weak, and the chaos dragged on.  Businesses and lives were destroyed.  People died.  This is remarkable:

Earlier this week it was revealed that Mandela Barnes lied about one of the cop endorsements he had touted, leaving him with 7 retired cops and 1 on-duty cop on his endorsement list. But as reported by CBS 58 yesterday, the lone on-duty cop removed his name from the list leaving only 7 RETIRED cops on Barnes’ endorsement list. Yes, there are 13,400 law enforcement officers in Wisconsin and ZERO endorsed Mandela Barnes for Senate. Statement from NRSC Spokeswoman Lizzie Litzow: “This is a huge red flag. Mandela Barnes is so dangerous for Wisconsin that no on-duty law enforcement officer will endorse his run for Senate. If Wisconsinites don’t know Barnes’ stance on crime yet, then they need to take this as a warning: Barnes will only make their state and communities less safe.”

Barnes is so hostile to law enforcement, and embraces such extreme pro-criminal policies, that his campaign could not fine one single active police officer in the entire state willing to support his campaign. Not one.  Ron Johnson is not a lock to win a third term, but his prospects for doing so are looking better than they have this cycle, and arguably better than they ever did last time he was up.  Based on public polling and my information gleaned on the ground in Wisconsin, I'd call him a slight frontrunner at this stage in the race, as voters continue to learn more information about his opponent.  If Johnson holds the seat, that improves his party's chances of recapturing a thin majority in November.  If the GOP also manages to hang on to the seat Pat Toomey is vacating in Pennsylvania, they'll be in the driver's seat.  Dr. Oz has trailed in every poll in that contest, but operatives on both sides acknowledge that things have tightened considerably.  Oz is up on the air with a very good new TV spot that combines a number of potent themes against Democrat John Fetterman -- who, like his counterpart in Wisconsin, is way out there on the left:

Oz is pummeling Fetterman on crime and the economy, while noting that Fetterman (who is still recovering from a stroke) is ducking debates before early voting begins.  Fetterman's views on criminal "justice" are...really something.  There's a lot of material to work with.  Conservative columnist George Will, hardly a GOP loyalist, is out with a new column blistering Fetterman for being something of a moocher and deadbeat throughout much of his adult life:

Read it.  It's bruising.  There's lots of oppo on this guy:

I'll leave you with the latest numbers out of three must-hold Senate races for Republicans, in which Republicans are leading narrowly-to-modestly: Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida:

That way-too-early 2024 nugget in the Sunshine State is interesting because it represents a complete reversal from Suffolk's numbers on the exact same question early this year.  DeSantis was trailing Trump back then, by a similar margin, but not anymore.  The same poll shows DeSantis crushing both Biden and Harris in hypothetical Florida presidential face-offs, by 8 to 12 points.  Trump also leads them both, albeit by clearly smaller margins (2-3 points).

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