Sen. Ron Johnson’s evolution from Tea Party insurgent to conspiracy theory promoter
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Sen. Ron Johnson’s evolution from Tea Party insurgent to conspiracy theory promoter

As Sen. Ron Johnson grapples with whether to run for a third term, it seems there’s no controversy the Wisconsin Republican is unwilling to wade into.

“The science tells us that vaccines are 95 percent effective. So if you have a vaccine, quite honestly, what do you care if your neighbor has one or not?” Johnson told conservative radio host Vicki McKenna in April. “So why is this big push to make sure everybody gets a vaccine?”

At a GOP gathering in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, in early June, Johnson dismissed climate change. “I don’t know about you guys, but I think climate change is — as Lord Monckton said — bullsh*t,” Johnson said, mouthing the expletive and referencing British conservative climate change denier Lord Christopher Monckton. “By the way, it is.”

And the senator recently suggested — without any evidence — that the FBI had more inside knowledge than it let on about Capitol insurrection. “I don’t say this publicly,” Johnson told constituents in late July. “So you think that the FBI had fully infiltrated the militias in Michigan and they didn’t know squat about what’s was happening on January 6 and what’s was happening with these groups?”

Johnson’s outspoken takes have run the gamut from vaccine skepticism to climate change denialism to downplaying the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol. His evolution from a conservative businessman to two-term senator apparently willing to deny facts and spread conspiracies has left some in the state wondering: What happened to Ron Johnson?

Johnson declined an interview for this story. In response to questions from CNN, his spokeswoman Alexa Henning said the senator is pro-vaccine, but believes researchers should also look at therapeutics like ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, even though they have not proven effective in treating Covid-19 and can have dangerous side effects. Johnson has insisted he’s not a climate change denier, although he has a long track record of questioning humans’ role in climate change, which runs counter to the scientific consensus. And when it comes to the FBI’s knowledge of January 6, “The senator is simply asking questions that many don’t want to hear or answer,” Henning said, a common explanation from the senator when he is wading into views that run counter to expert consensus. “The senator continues to call on the FBI and DOJ to be transparent. To date, they have not been.”

He had a good grasp on reality ‘and then Trump happened’

Mark Becker, the former head of the Brown County Republican Party, is one of a handful of Republicans in the state who have not only turned against former President Donald Trump but also against Johnson.

“He was our guy,” Becker said of Johnson in an interview. “He was hyper-focused on the national debt, and he was the budget guy. He came to our events, and he was so well-liked. And he, it seemed, had a pretty good grasp on reality, and then Trump happened.”

While Becker supported Johnson’s first Senate run in 2010, he was actively campaigning against Johnson and Trump by 2016. When the 2020 election rolled around, Becker was persona non grata in Johnson’s world. But Becker was so frustrated to see Republicans, including Johnson, casting doubt on the 2020 election results that he reached out to Johnson anyway.

“I’m like, ‘He’s not going to call me back, but I’ll leave him a message and we’ll leave it at that.’ Well, then he called back, and I was like, ‘Holy sh*t,'” Becker said.

Becker said he expressed his concerns about the doubt Republicans were sowing around the 2020 election results.

“I said, ‘Ron, Joe Biden won the election.’ He said, ‘Yes, but 1.5 million people voted for Donald Trump. I’m not stupid. I’m not going to piss those people off,'” Becker said. “So it’s like, okay, so serve them red meat, lie to these people, and then you can save face and you can say, ‘I had his back.'”

Becker went on to write a column about his phone call with Johnson and continued to press the senator to publicly stand up for the integrity of the 2020 election results.

The day after the insurrection at the US Capitol, Becker says he got a response.

“He said, ‘Mark. It is my sincere hope to never have to see or speak to a lowlife weasel such as yourself again. Please stop trying to contact me,'” Becker said, sharing the message with CNN. “So, they’re still picking up glass on the floor of the Capitol and that’s what he’s concerned about. It tells a lot.”

According to Johnson’s spokeswoman, the senator has said Becker called him “under false pretenses. I was kind enough to engage in a lengthy conversation with him that I had every expectation would remain private. Months later, he went public with what he claims the conversation was about and what I had said. Anyone who would do that is a low-life weasel, and nothing they say should be given any credence.”

A number of former Johnson allies have found themselves aghast at the senator’s behavior around the 2020 election.

“I think that he’s the same in some ways but a little more disappointing,” one former staffer said of Johnson’s political evolution. The most disappointing part being his actions surrounding the election, the former staffer said.

Johnson — then the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee — held a hearing in December highlighting what he claimed were many “irregularities” during the 2020 election.

“He would say, ‘I’m just asking questions,’ but framing that as a way to almost keep spreading the big lie about elections,” the former Johnson staffer said. “That was the time when we needed people to most step up and say the election was legitimate. He of all people should have been in a position to say he knew how these elections worked and everything went right.”

Johnson made headlines again this week when a liberal activist secretly filmed the senator admitting Trump lost the state of Wisconsin.

“The only reason Trump lost Wisconsin is that 51,000 Republican voters didn’t vote for him,” Johnson said in the video. “There’s nothing obviously skewed about the results. There isn’t.”

But his private admission that Trump lost hasn’t stopped him from publicly sticking by his claims of irregularities.

“This supposed undercover recording by a Democrat political operative at a public event is consistent with what I’ve been saying publicly on the 2020 election, no need for hidden cameras and secret recordings, if the press were honest they would accurately report that,” Johnson said in a statement. “There were many irregularities that have yet to be fully explained, fully investigated, and solutions passed to restore confidence in future elections, which is why I held a Senate hearing on Dec. 16, 2020. I’ve investigated many of the irregularities, explained some, and have not gotten answers on many.”

In the statement, Johnson noted that he acknowledged Biden as president-elect as far back as December 2020. He failed to note that after admitting Biden won, Johnson backtracked in January and was one of a handful of GOP senators who signed on to a January letter vowing to object to the Electoral College votes in “disputed states” ahead of the January 6 certification.

“That doesn’t mean by objecting, by raising these issues that we’re doing anything dangerous,” Johnson said in a January Newsmax interview. “That’s what drives me nuts in this process. My investigation’s been termed dangerous. It’s not dangerous, it’s what’s required.”

Two days later, a mob stormed the US Capitol. After that, Johnson voted to certify the results.

The rise of Ron Johnson

As far as Michelle Litjens is concerned, Johnson is the same guy he was when she took him to give his first public speech at a Tea Party event in 2009.

“He’s always been a frank talker,” said Litjens, who was already involved in Wisconsin GOP politics when she met Johnson and went on to serve in the state assembly. “He doesn’t skirt around issues. He is not looking to make friends necessarily all the time. He wants to make a difference.”

Litjens invited Johnson, who ran a local plastics manufacturing company, to join a roster of speakers at the upcoming event.

“Ron Johnson gets up to speak and he does not speak about business. He actually starts telling a story about how his daughter was born with a rare birth defect and how she wouldn’t be alive today if they would not have been able to find a heart specialist to help his daughter, and that wouldn’t be possible if we had government run healthcare,” Litjens said.

At a time when the GOP backlash to Obamacare was reaching a crescendo, the message resonated.

“When Ron spoke, you could’ve heard a pin drop,” Litjens said. “When he did that, you just knew something special was happening.”

Even so, Litjens was skeptical when Johnson came to her months later and confided that he wanted to challenge Democratic incumbent Sen. Russ Feingold in the 2010 race.

“I said, ‘Yeah, I don’t think you really want to do that,'” Litjens said. “Ron is not political. He wasn’t from politics. He ran a business. And a campaign is county fairs and dairy breakfasts and shaking hands. It’s seven days a week, 24 hours a day.”

But Johnson was insistent, so Litjens helped him make inroads with conservative operatives and talk radio show hosts. That included an introduction to Charlie Sykes, then a prominent conservative radio host in Wisconsin, who helped Johnson gain name recognition in the state. Sykes, who has since soured on the senator, said this year he was “embarrassed” he ever supported Johnson.

Back in 2010, though, Johnson crafted his campaign around being a Washington outsider who was dedicated to shrinking government, tackling the national debt and boosting economic growth. He poured millions of dollars of his own cash into his campaign and ran buzzy ads highlighting his manufacturing and accounting background.

In one such ad, Johnson stands in front of a white board tallying the number of lawyers in the Senate at the time, compared to the number of manufacturers (zero) and accountants (one).

“There are 100 members of the U.S. Senate,” Johnson said in the ad. “Fifty-seven of them, including Russ Feingold, are lawyers. That’d be fine if we had a lawsuit to settle. But we have an economy to fix.”

The strategy worked. Johnson won his first Senate race, ousting Feingold in a GOP wave election.

Democrats were so convinced Johnson’s victory was a fluke -that Feingold ran again in the 2016 race in an attempt to win back his seat.

In the run up to the election, Johnson was lagging behind in public polls.

“At one point, he’d been kind of abandoned by his own party nationally in terms of funding,” said Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Washington Bureau Chief Craig Gilbert, who has been covering politics since the 1980s and Johnson since he arrived in Washington. “That was something that I don’t think he forgot very quickly. But everybody had kind of left him for dead politically.”

Once again, Johnson surprised political observers, notching his second victory, this time alongside Donald Trump.

Political strategists and former staffers said Johnson always had an independent streak and an inclination to speak his mind, no matter how controversial the topic. But his surprise back-to-back victories may have only emboldened those instincts.

“He came out of nowhere and people really doubted him and so he was always sort of used to that mindset, and 2016 did nothing but deepen that,” a former staffer said. “I think he came into the Senate feeling like he fought his way back from the dead, he’d earned it, he owed nothing to anybody. And, you know that that has sort of continued to show itself ever since.”

To Johnson, ‘there’s a lot of truth out there’

To Johnson’s critics, he appears to be a power-hungry politician that is willing to peddle conspiracies to keep his grasp on the Trump-loving base of the party.

To them, Johnson’s office offered a statement from the senator: “I promised my constituents two things, that I would never vote with my re-election in mind and I would always tell the truth. Just because the mainstream media and their allies in the Democrat party don’t like to be questioned does not mean I will stop holding them accountable.”

Johnson’s allies, however, see him as a guy who has always stayed true to the GOP grassroots and remained eager to question the establishment. The issues may have shifted, but his allegiances have not, they said.

“Before he was that guy on conservative talk and on TV, he was that guy, listening to conservative talk and yelling at the TV. He’s still that guy,” said a former staffer. “He’s remained the same guy. And as he’s developed these additional priorities, he hasn’t ditched his old ones.”

Republican strategist Brian Schimming — one of the senator’s many GOP allies in the state — said Johnson simply likes to raise questions and ensure different points of view are presented to the American public.

“For Ron Johnson, for him, there’s a lot of truth out there, let’s put it that way,” Schimming said. “And he wants to make sure people are exposed to it.”

When it comes to Covid-19 vaccines, for instance, Johnson has questioned the safety of the vaccines and used public events to highlight rare adverse side effects. He has also touted alternative drugs like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin that have not proven effective in treating the virus.

Days after the FDA warned Americans not to take ivermectin as a Covid-19 treatment, Johnson was back to touting it.

“I’m very agnostic. I don’t care what drug will work, try a bunch of them, particularly the ones that are safe,” Johnson told Washington Times opinion editor Cheryl Chumley in a late August podcast, adding, “There’s growing evidence that ivermectin can be effective.”

Johnson has also repeatedly warned of the risk of death from the vaccines, often citing data that shows thousands died in the days after vaccination. That data, though, is unverified and does not prove a causal effect between vaccination and death.

“If you question anything about January 6 or if you question anything about the Covid pronouncements from the Covid gods, you are a potential domestic terrorist,” Johnson told conservative radio host Vicki McKenna in late August. “So I guess I’m double that.”

Henning, the senator’s spokeswoman, said the senator is an advocate for early treatments. While serious negative reactions to the vaccines are extremely rare, Henning said the senator believes those who experience them “have the right to be seen, heard and believed, especially by federal health authorities who to date do not seem to have taken adverse events seriously.” And she said the senator believes the death tallies he so often cites “should be taken seriously and thoroughly investigated.”

But as US health officials continue to battle vaccine hesitancy — an issue that has been more pronounced among Republicans — they have warned that false claims about the vaccine are only making it more difficult to convince Americans to get the shot.

“We’ve heard false claims that Covid-19 vaccines cause infertility, contain microchips and cause Covid-19. And worse, we’ve heard false claims that thousands of people have died from the vaccine,” Dr. Peter Marks, director of the US Food and Drug Administration Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said in late August. “Let me be clear: These claims are simply not true. Getting a Covid-19 vaccine can save your life.”

Eying a third term

During Johnson’s last race, he vowed to the voters that he was a two-term kind of guy.

“I’m gonna serve one more term. That’s it. Two terms. More than enough time! 12 years. Feingold’s there for 18 years!” Johnson said at a 2016 campaign event.

Lately, he’s been wavering on that promise, still undecided on whether he will seek a third term. If he does, seasoned political observers were split on Johnson’s reelection odds.

“It’s unusual to have a member of the Senate from a 50-50 state as conservative as Ron Johnson is, and it’s probably even a little bit more unusual to be as, kind of, much of a lightning rod,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Gilbert said. “It’s not necessarily great general election politics to be, kind of, to be where Ron Johnson has been on some of these issues.”

There’s no doubt Wisconsin is a battleground state. It went for former President Barack Obama twice before flipping to Trump’s column in 2016, only to trend blue again for Biden in 2020. And between Johnson and Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, there is perhaps no other state with such philosophically opposite representation in the Senate.

A former Johnson staffer said people don’t fully grasp the state’s political landscape — and that leads them to underestimate Johnson’s appeal.

“The reality is that Wisconsin is not a purple state. Wisconsin is two states: A red state and a blue state, with deeply hardened bases, and then a very thin sliver of the swing vote,” the former staffer said. “It’s something that people have understood in Wisconsin for a long time, which is that you maximize your base as much as possible, and you find a way to carve off that swing vote.”

Johnson’s allies bet that Wisconsin voters will see beyond the raft of negative headlines he’s faced recently. When he generates controversy, they say he simply likes to ask questions. And they blame the media, saying he’s being taken out of context.

“I think the people of Wisconsin appreciate that Ron Johnson is a straight shooter,” said Ben Voelkel, Johnson’s former communications director. “They might not always agree with him, but what he told them the first time he ran and how he continues to act is that he’s always going to be straight with them.”

For Democrats in Wisconsin, Johnson’s straight talk is easy campaign ammunition.

Nearly a dozen Democrats have jumped in the race for Johnson’s seat, including high-profile names like Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, Wisconsin’s Treasurer Sarah Godlewski and Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry.

And they’re already using his words against him.

Earlier this year, Johnson went on a media tour insisting he never felt threatened on January 6.

“I knew those were people that loved this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break the law. So, I wasn’t concerned,” Johnson said on the Joe Pags Show. “Had the tables been turned, and President Trump won the election, and those were tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter and Antifa protesters, I might have been a little concerned.”

Johnson’s office said he has condemned the violence on January 6, but he distinguishes those who stormed the Capitol from those who engaged in legal protests.

Still, Godlewski has already used a portion of those remarks in an ad against him.

Barnes also took aim at Johnson’s remarks, telling CNN, “He’s a person who has morphed into the guy who’s gonna say the racist part out loud. We’re talking real Archie Bunker here now, on top of the conspiracy theories.”

There’s little sign Democrats plan to let up.

“I feel that, honestly, he says these things in order to get attention, to bring attention to himself. Because he hasn’t delivered for people,” Barnes said. “He speaks his truth, and unfortunately, he’s delusional.

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