On the Friday before the election, Ron Johnson is stretched out in the back seat of his campaign van. He is loose and relaxed, talking about how he just can’t get used to people recognizing him in public. He describes the experience as traveling “through the looking glass.” “I can’t wait to get home and get my pajamas on at night, so I can get back to being Ron Johnson again,” he says.
It has been a mercurial final week for the campaign. The week began with the Associated Press publishing a ridiculously slanted article against Johnson (headline: “Wisconsin Senate Race Pits ‘Maverick’ Against ‘Rich Guy’”), which the National Review’s Andrew Stiles intuitively described as the AP “endorsing” Feingold.
Feingold has also started running a flurry of ads against Johnson, including one that uses Johnson’s quote to Politico about being able to say what his “true feelings” are after the election is over. “I guess we should have clarified that we need him to not say he is not saying things,” said one staffer.
On the national scene, Johnson remained a fairly well-kept secret, thanks to Rand Paul in Kentucky. Prior to a debate on October 25, a Paul campaign volunteer had been filmed stomping on the head of a MoveOn.org protestor that was trying to present Paul with a fake “RepubliCorp” award. Video of the melee dominated cable news talk shows for days afterwards.
Ironically, MoveOn.org had stung Johnson with the same prank earlier in October. At a meeting at the University Club in Milwaukee, a protestor dressed in a suit attempted to present Johnson with a fake “RepubliCorp” award for “standing up for the top 2%.” When it was clear what was going on, the interloper was removed. (Johnson’s campaign had previously issued a memo to staffers regarding how to peaceably deal with protestors.)
But with three days until the election, confidence was high on the Ron Johnson campaign bus. In the past couple of days, several polls had been conducted that showed Johnson up by around seven percentage points in aggregate. While holding court at the back of the bus, Johnson explains how honored he is to have been featured in a recent edition of The Onion. The satirical newspaper had recently printed a humorous article ridiculing Johnson’s attempts to distance himself from Washington D.C. (titled, “My Opponent Knows Where Washington is on a Map; I Don’t, and I Never Will.”) Johnson had asked his daughter to pick up a few copies of the paper when she visited Madison.
Johnson’s day began at 6 AM, when he visited the N&M Transfer headquarters in Neenah. From there, he made his way to a McDonald’s on Jackson St. in Oshkosh to shake hands and conduct a brief interview with Ben Smith of Politico.
The McDonald’s stop illustrated the wildly disparate reactions candidates receive on the trail, often within seconds of each other. While in the restaurant, Johnson was approached by a young nurse who was ecstatic to meet him; she excitedly took a picture with him. On the way out of the restaurant, Johnson was met by a woman who harangued him for his positions on gay marriage. RonJon listened politely, until it was time to get back on the bus.
This is perhaps the most jarring aspect of campaigning for new candidates; the fact that everyone in the world now has an opinion about you and how you’re doing your job. Six months ago, nobody would have walked up to Ron Johnson and forcefully explained to him how he was manufacturing plastics incorrectly. But now, he’s a public person with public responsibilities.
From there, the bus headed to WOSH 1490 for a radio interview with local host Bob Burnell, then to Father Carr’s Place 2B, a local food bank and homeless shelter. The center is a converted warehouse with bright lime green walls, with a makeshift chapel set up in the back – complete with pews and an altar. Johnson takes a tour of the center, delighting Sam, Patrick, Marty, and Mary Claire, a small group of adorable little kids there for the festivities.
From there, Johnson would hop back on the bus and head to Mike’s Place Family Restaurant on Jackson St. in Oshkosh. When he walks in, all eyes in the restaurant turn to him. This is the case with many politicians – they simply have a look about them that draws people to stare when they enter a room. In many cases, it is easy to tell who the Senator is at a public event, even if you don’t know who they are. They simply have “it.” And based on how people react to him in public, plastics manufacturer Ron Johnson now has it.
When I asked him later about whether he thinks he has “the look” of someone important, he laughs. “That’s what a couple million dollars’ worth of television ads will get you,” he said. “Then again, maybe it is the good looks,” he adds, cracking a sarcastic smile.
At Mike’s Restaurant, there’s a reporter from the UK Independent newspaper waiting to ask him a few questions. Johnson has also picked up a photographer from the New York Times, who would follow him around for much of the rest of the day.
Johnson finishes talking with restaurant patrons ahead of schedule, so the bus makes an unscheduled stop at another family restaurant. While Johnson shakes hands, a group of about 20 ten year-old kids wearing Halloween costumes floods into the restaurant. The last child in the group is wearing a hat meant to make him look like he has been beheaded, with bones and veins sticking out the top. Ron Johnson, meet the kids whose futures you are trying to save.
Quickly, Johnson is back on the bus and headed for a strip mall, where he would visit a bank, a chiropractic office, and a data company. On the bus, Joe Leschke, Johnson’s driver, discusses how unsettling it when people come up and try to peer into the bus, as if Pearl Jam were inside. “They’re a little disappointed when they see me behind the wheel,” he says – although he says Johnson does drive the bus home by himself at night.
Still ahead of schedule, the bus heads back to the campaign headquarters for a little “down time.” Back in the office, Johnson learns of a potential terrorist attack that was thwarted, in which suspicious packages were found on planes originating in Yemen and headed for America. Ron huddled quickly with Juston Johnson to discuss the day’s happenings.
Down time is short, however, and soon Johnson is back on the bus and headed for Jon’s Sport Shop. The hunting and fishing store features a row of shotguns that looks like it goes on for a half mile. The owner of the store presents Johnson with an obscenely large hunting knife. It is engraved with Johnson’s campaign logo and the words “blade designed specifically to cut big spending, cut taxes, cut pork fat, and guard those who pledge allegiance to the flag.”
One staffer gazes at a gallon jug of deer urine and wonders why it costs $25. “Because it’s the best,” says a store worker. One wonders what the test to determine what the “best” deer urine is entails. (Also, a note to aspiring adult dancers – the store houses fish bait with names like “chartreuse pepper,” “centipede pumpkin,” “glimmer blue,” and “mint lizard.”)
On the way to RonJon’s next engagement, the Northeast Wisconsin Chambers of Commerce luncheon, Johnson is joined by Reince Priebus, chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party.
Before the luncheon, Priebus noted why Johnson hadn’t been considered a “Tea Party” candidate in the mold of Rand Paul or Christine O’Donnell, despite starting his candidacy by giving speeches at Tea Party events (Johnson says he has never met any of the other Republican senate candidates). Priebus points out that it was the Republican Party that recruited Johnson, and got him hooked up with advisors, fundraisers, and advertising people. And Priebus is proud of the fact that the Republican party in Wisconsin works with the Tea Party, so both entities can support a candidate without there being any bad blood.
Over a mass lunch of roast beef sandwiches, Johnson gives his stump speech to a receptive audience of businesspeople and local politicians. Journalists Byron York of the Washington Examiner and Rich Lowry of the National Review have joined up with the entourage. In his speech, Johnson hits all the points – this is a job interview, we need to repeal the health care bill, the future of America is at stake. The speech lasts about 20 minutes and he receives a warm ovation on his way out.
Another diner, a furniture store, a coffee shop, a hardware store. All Johnson’s stops are starting to blur together. He visits several places by walking up and down Main Street in Oshkosh. His entourage now includes three journalists, two photographers, four staffers, and a Democratic tracker, who has emerged wielding a video camera. As a group they waddle from store to store like a family of ducks, all lined up. Several people congratulate Johnson on winning Charlie Sykes’ weekly “Right Stuff” award on the radio an hour earlier – as if Johnson had just won a Nobel Prize.
Johnson gets a must-needed chance to rest during a half hour drive out to the Magnum generator plant in Berlin, Wisconsin. Waiting for him there is a group of about 150 employees, who have been given an hour off from work to gather around a makeshift stage in a garage to see Johnson talk. Magnum is the type of factory that, despite its workforce being one-third female, still allows employees to mount posters of half-naked women holding greasy wrenches at their workspace. (Which, incidentally, is the dream of no living man.)
Johnson delivers a speech to the shivering employees that mirrors his earlier speech, with a little more emphasis on jobs and manufacturing. He’s joined by Congressman Tom Petri, who has spent 31 years in the House of Representatives, and who could accurately be described as the type of “career politician” Johnson purports to abhor.
On the drive back to Oshkosh, Johnson is still energetic. He says he maintains his fitness by doing NordicTrack to music as much as possible. He has a CD of “Rock Hits of the ‘80’s” that he cranks up to maximum volume when his family is out of the house (including such hits as “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” by the Georgia Satellites and “I Hate Myself for Loving You” by Joan Jett.)
Up next on the schedule was the antidote to fitness – a trip to Leon’s Frozen Custard shop in Oshkosh. In addition to their delicious frozen custard, Leon’s signature dish is an artery-attacking sloppy joe sandwich called the “Joos Burger.” Johnson shakes hands with about a dozen assembled supporters and talks to the owner, before conducting a quick interview with a Channel 11 television news reporter. He then grabs a dish of custard and jumps back on the bus (counting about 30 times today that he had taken his suit jacket off and put it back on.)
The day ends up back at headquarters, with Bourbon the Dog still carefully eyeing up suspicious visitors that enter. But the rest is short-lived, as the night schedule features a rally at the Eagles Club down the road in Oshkosh.
The main ballroom of the Eagles Club itself is an impressive venue – flanked by an ornate balcony, its hardwood floors still have the freshly-refinished smell that harkens back to high school basketball games. As people file in, they are handed miniature American flags and Ron Johnson campaign signs.
Within the past few days, Johnson’s staff contemplated changing the venue for this rally, thinking they wouldn’t get enough supporters there to fill it up. But as warm-up act James T. Harris thundered through his monologue, more and more people pressed up to the front of the stage. Soon, the balcony would fill up.
The rally began with emcee Charlie Sykes telling the crowd the story of how he started the Ron Johnson phenomenon by simply reading some RonJon’s pre-candidacy speeches on the air. Sykes’ portion ended with the talk show host predicting Russ Feingold’s re-introduction to the private sector in four days.
Sykes then introduced Congressman Paul Ryan, who threw out many of his tried and true free-market verbal bouquets to the crowd. Ryan emphasized that the future of the country was at stake. When he left the stage, Sykes implored Ryan to run for president, and Ryan sheepishly shrugged it off, as if he hadn’t been asked that question every ten minutes of his life for the past two years.
When Ron Johnson took the stage, the crowd was energized beyond a typical Republican campaign event. Johnson gave the same stump speech he had given earlier in the day, but threw in a story about the selflessness of soldiers to emphasize his belief in American exceptionalism. (Earlier in the day, he had mentioned he was pulling out “the soldier story” for his speech and warned me to pack a tissue.)
The crowd surged forward during his speech, demonstrating an enthusiasm reserved for people other than plastics manufacturers. But on this stage in his hometown, Ron Johnson was more than “a guy from Oshkosh.” He was the living embodiment of the crowd’s trepidation about the future, and their passion for change. Johnson was the antenna through which they channeled their vision of what America should – and could, once again – look like.
And he had come a long way.
Five weeks before Russ Feingold’s first election in 1992, a brash young quarterback named Brett Favre made his first start for the Green Bay Packers. Days before the 2010 election, the broken body of old, gray, scandal-ridden Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre laid on the ground, gushing blood from his chin. The Johnson campaign hoped there was a modicum of symbolic symmetry between those two legendary Wisconsin figures.
The Ron Johnson election night victory party was held in a converted airplane hangar at the EAA Museum in Oshkosh. The walls were adorned with large, colorful maps, and the floor featured roped-off airplanes such as the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and the Chance Vought F40 Corsair. One could accuse the Johnson campaign of using such a setting metaphorically – a future senator getting his political career off the ground – but they most likely picked it simply because it was a really cool place.
At about 6 PM on election night, Johnson enthusiasts began to file in the hangar. It’s sometimes jarring for campaign staff to see actual voters – while locked up in an office during the election cycle, voters are merely antiseptic numbers and trends. But on election night, here they are in the flesh – real people with outrageous mustaches, pot bellies and insensible shoes.
Inside, the crowd exhibits the anticipation of a group that has only seen one Republican senator in 47 years. They drink, laugh, and watch the large screen projection television that has been set up for them to see results. Their kids sit catatonic, angry at their parents for dragging them out to this thing.
Also in attendance is Jack Jablonski’s wife and now-5 month old son, who he’s only seen one day a week since his birth. “After the election, he’s going to be pissed that there’s some new guy moving in to his house,” Jablonski jokes. Jack spent most of the night tied to a headset in the “war room,” receiving vote totals from poll watchers around the state.
In the meantime, Ruesch and Sendek deal with the gaggle of 80 media members who have assembled on a high-riser to document tonight’s proceedings. Sendek has already done a couple of on-camera television interviews. When Ruesch talks to Channel 12 news from Milwaukee, it is beamed down to the large screen televisions at the Scott Walker victory party near Waukesha, eliciting big cheers from partygoers there.
When the polls close at 8 PM, the large television starts flashing results from the race. Early results show Johnson up, and faux cheers arise every time the television shows “Johnson 58%, Feingold 41%” or a similar result. The campaign staff, tucked away in a side room, are getting different numbers that show the race to be much closer. Sure, the early returns had been favorable, but Johnson was going to have to get a big lead and cling to it as the heavily liberal City of Madison numbers made their way through the process, as a swallowed pig makes its way through a python.
At around 9:00, Republican Scott Walker was declared the winner of Wisconsin’s gubernatorial race. To get some fresh air, Ron’s wife Jane and daughter Jenna walked out to observe the gathering from the back of the room. They hid behind some of the airplanes, where they were all alone.
But then, just like that, it happened. At 9:39 PM, NBC news called the race for Ron Johnson. The 1200-plus people in the hangar erupted with applause. And after all the fundraising, and all the shaking hands, and all the battling with the press, and all the learning how to be a candidate, Ron Johnson was now a senator-elect.
Of course, networks have been wrong before when they call races – so it took until nearly 11:00 PM for Feingold to call Johnson and concede. Shortly thereafter, Feingold took the stage and gave a brief, but emotional concession speech. It was clear he was trying to look upbeat, but he gave the speech as if there were a lobster in his underwear.
Feingold quoted Bob Dylan, saying “But my heart is not weary, it's light and free, I've got nothing but affection for those who have sailed with me.” He finished by thundering, “it’s on to the next battle, it’s on to 2012,” which led many to believe Feingold would be back to run for the U.S. Senate in two years, should 75-year old incumbent Herb Kohl decide not to run.
As soon as Feingold finished at his party in Madison, Senator-elect Ron Johnson strode to the podium in Oshkosh. Flanked by his family, he thanked his wife, kids, and campaign staff (Juston was the only one he recognized by name.) He bragged that he had gotten up to 40,000 Facebook fans. (On the bus three days earlier, he was ecstatic about passing Scott Walker in Facebook fans, and set his sights on Paul Ryan, who leads Wisconsin politicians with 47,000.)
In total, Johnson’s speech went about twelve minutes – four times as long as Feingold’s curt concession. It was a version of his stump speech, with the soldier story tacked on the end. But it didn’t matter how many times his supporters had heard these words fall from his mouth – he stood before them one of the most astounding political stories of 2010.
By night’s end, Republicans would win control of the Wisconsin Assembly, Senate, governorship, one U.S. Senate seat, and two House seats. It was a bloodbath for the Democrats, who saw both their Speaker of the Assembly and Senate Majority Leader lose their seats.
Nationally, Republicans won over 60 seats and regained control of the House of Representatives. In the Senate, the GOP picked up six seats, short of the number needed to take control. Yet many of the states where the GOP gained seats (Illinois, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, North Dakota, Indiana) routinely elect Republicans statewide; Wisconsin hadn’t elected a GOP U.S. senator since 1986. National media darlings like Marco Rubio and Rand Paul sailed to election, but did so in seats previously held by Republicans. Ron Johnson’s pickup stands alone as perhaps the most stunning of GOP victories.
One of the most famous skits from Monty Python’s Flying Circus involves a man who tries to return a dead parrot to a pet store. The store’s owner insists that the parrot isn’t dead, it is only “resting.” Hilarity ensues as the owner stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that the parrot has “ceased to be.”
In defending his votes for the health care and stimulus bills, Russ Feingold repeatedly tried to convince the Wisconsin public that he hadn’t sold them a dead parrot. Feingold’s unfailing insistence that the public didn’t understand how good they had it made him look completely out of touch with the electorate. And he paid for it with his job.
In early April of 2010, Michelle Litjens, the chairwoman of the Winnebago Republican Party, found some local guy that was thinking of running for the U.S. Senate. She brought him down to a meeting of a handful of conservative operatives in Madison. He didn’t even know he was supposed to speak at this meeting, and patched together a few talking points in the car on the way down.
When Litjens introduced businessman Ron Johnson to the group, people rolled their eyes and checked their watches as he ambled through his reasons for running. There were already a few people thinking about running for senate, and even Wisconsin political legend Tommy Thompson was considering getting in the race. The last thing Wisconsin needed was another rich guy to serve as fodder for the Feingold political machine. Just who did this thin-faced, white-haired guy think he was?
Six months later, everyone found out who he was. He was Ron Johnson, Republican Senator from Wisconsin.
Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.