The Rise of Ron Johnson

From successful businessman to Tea Party favorite to… cross-party compromiser? The Wisconsin senator has enjoyed an intriguing start to his political career. Where does he go from here?

It doesn’t take long before Ron Johnson goes to his charts.

Speaking to a visitor in his Milwaukee office, Johnson pulls a fistful of charts out of a file folder to explain the nation’s budget deficit. He sketches another chart on a piece of paper to illustrate Washington’s political dynamics. He has posted dozens of charts on his official Senate website.

And on his days off? “I develop an awful lot of the information for my charts and graphs on the weekends,” punching budget data into spreadsheets, Johnson says.

Wisconsin’s senior senator is a numbers guy, a believer in the power of facts and figures. And he doesn’t stray from the message he’s trying to convey with those facts and figures. He’s courteous but spends less time than most politicians on small talk, bringing the conversation back to his view of federal policy as quickly as he can.

Colleagues see it, too. When Johnson dines with fellow Republicans in Wisconsin’s congressional delegation, Fond du Lac U.S. Rep. Tom Petri says, “He’s very pleasant,” but “he’s always kind of goal-oriented,” with “sort of a laser-like focus” on budget issues.

It’s just what you would expect from an accountant who left a career in business on a mission to rein in federal spending.

But what no one expected – and what few people know – is how quickly this novice lawmaker would master the Capitol’s political arithmetic. Not even halfway into the first term of his first elected office, congressional insiders say Johnson has quietly become a key player in behind-the-scenes talks on major fiscal issues.

“Ron is one of the most important people in the Senate right now,” says Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican who gave up his Senate seat to become president of the conservative Heritage Foundation. “In a lot of ways, he has a lot more power than the elected leadership.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wouldn’t respond to DeMint’s characterization but called Johnson “an important member of our team.” And, McConnell adds, “When Ron has something to say, everyone listens.”

McConnell, DeMint and others say Republican lawmakers respect Johnson for his real-world business experience – as former owner and CEO of Oshkosh-based plastics manufacturer PACUR – and his ability to negotiate with different GOP factions in both chambers of Congress to craft joint strategies on fiscal policy.

He played that role in deals to raise the federal borrowing limit in July 2011 and in January 2013. He was back at it this spring and summer, leading behind-the-scenes talks between Senate and House Republicans on how to approach the next debt limit vote, expected in late summer or early fall.

Early on New Year’s Day, Johnson voted for the “fiscal cliff” agreement that moderated tax hikes and delayed spending cuts triggered by the 2011 debt deal. After those spending cuts took effect in March, he was in the first group of 12 Republican senators invited to discuss fiscal issues over dinner with President Barack Obama. Then, Johnson says, he took over “leading the effort to define the problem,” trying to come up with numbers that all sides could agree to use as the basis of a long-term budget deal.

The idea of Johnson forging compromises across ideological lines seems jarringly out of step with his hard-right public image. This is, after all, the Ron Johnson who entered politics by speaking at a Tea Party rally, who owns one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate, and who lumped Democrats and liberals with Marxists and Socialists. (He says that was just a joke in his remarks at a Jefferson County Republican event in February). He’s the Ron Johnson who declared in 2010 that believing in man-made climate change was “lunacy” and who helped defeat legislation to expand background checks for gun purchases in April.

And perhaps most memorably, he’s the Ron Johnson whose first hearing on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee back in January turned into a nationally televised clash with outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. As Johnson questioned Clinton about conflicting administration statements on whether terrorists planned the assault that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, she exploded: “What difference, at this point, does it make?” Her response became fodder for GOP critics, while Democrats portrayed Johnson as poorly informed. Johnson himself had to backtrack after suggesting Clinton intentionally became emotional to dodge questions.

All of that gives Johnson’s critics ample ammunition to label him a Tea Party ideologue. Yet DeMint says that’s not an accurate picture. Johnson never joined the Senate Tea Party Caucus, though he’s philosophically in tune with it.

“He’s not a partisan in the sense you see here [in Washington],” says DeMint, who was a key Tea Party leader in the Senate. “He’s not some kind of far-right guy. He’s a business guy with a family.”

This article appears in the August 2013 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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A business guy with a family – that’s the core of the story Johnson has told many times about how he got into politics. How a Tea Party group invited him to speak about government regulation of business. How he accepted the invitation on the condition that he would speak instead about Obama’s health care reforms, which Johnson saw as a threat not only to the health care system that saved his daughter’s life but also to the nation’s fiscal solvency and to American freedom itself. How that speech led conservative activists to urge him to enter the 2010 U.S. Senate race. How he declined “because I’m not crazy.” How the passage of the Affordable Care Act changed his mind.

Then came Johnson’s easy victory in the GOP primary and his largely self-funded campaign against a liberal icon, three-term Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, which ended on a day that saw Wisconsin Republicans sweep nearly every statewide election.

And so Ron Johnson, who had never even visited Washington before the campaign, earned a six-year tour of duty on the front lines of federal spending battles.

Johnson is not the first businessman to win office without a background in politics. But he might differ in how he applies his business experience to the job.

“He’s been a great addition to the Senate because he thinks strategically,” says Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, Johnson’s Senate mentor.

That word – strategy – comes up often in conversations about Johnson. DeMint and U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a leading House conservative, also laud Johnson’s strategic thinking. Johnson says that’s something he learned in his previous life.

“You need a strategy” to run a successful business, Johnson says. “That doesn’t really exist in Washington, D.C.”

Johnson’s strategy is aimed at limiting federal spending, or as he puts it, “preventing the bankrupting of our nation.” As the Affordable Care Act takes effect, the deficit has eclipsed health care as his signature issue.

“He’s homed in like a dive bomber on our fiscal problems,” Coburn says.

But Johnson’s proposals don’t get far in the Democratic-led Senate. Recognizing that disadvantage, he urged his GOP colleagues to “utilize the House in a very strategic way” by adopting major legislation in the chamber they control “in a highly visible manner,” calculated to attract enough public support to pressure Senate Democrats to consider and possibly adopt the measures.

Even if such legislation doesn’t pass the Senate and win Obama’s approval, Johnson argues, it would deliver a message: “This is what we’re for. This is what we need to do.” And that’s a message Republicans could carry into the next election, he reasons.

To his surprise, Johnson learned that senators don’t normally coordinate with House members. Jordan and DeMint say few other senators reach out to their House counterparts as Johnson does.

Nonetheless, Johnson asked Jordan if he could speak to the House’s conservative Republican Study Committee, which Jordan led at the time. It turned out Jordan had earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and they talked about the Packers and the Badgers, “but mostly about the passion he has to make a difference,” the Ohio congressman says.

The two worked together during the 2011 showdown over raising the borrowing limit. Johnson says he pushed to modify the “cut, cap and balance” approach to the budget by adding a hiring and regulatory freeze that evolved into his separate bill to reduce personnel by attrition.

“Ron was instrumental in helping to break the logjam” and avoid a government shutdown, DeMint says. “He helped to get a lot of House conservatives to vote for the debt ceiling increase.”

Similarly, when the earlier debt ceiling extension expired in January of this year, Johnson said he worked with House members to press for a provision to cut spending by the same amount that the debt ceiling rose.

But Democratic Senate leaders shelved the House-approved “cut, cap and balance” measure, while the dollar-for-dollar spending reduction bill and Johnson’s personnel-cutting legislation were buried in committee. As a result, Johnson voted against both the July 2011 and January 2013 borrowing extensions.

More recently, Johnson has been working with Georgia GOP U.S. Rep. Tom Graves to forge a joint House-Senate Republican strategy for this fall’s debt limit vote. Every two weeks or so, each of them brings a shifting group of nine or 10 colleagues to a brainstorming session on the debt limit and other policy issues.

“We hear a lot about gridlock in Washington,” Graves says. “Sen. Johnson is looking for ways to break the gridlock. … He’s had an amazing impact in bringing folks together who wouldn’t ordinarily have come together.”

In May, Johnson gave Senate Republicans “a very, very effective presentation,” McConnell says, on how to control federal spending over the next 30 years.

Until now, however, few people outside congressional GOP circles knew of Johnson’s role. When he was interviewed for this article, Johnson said it was probably the first time he had spoken publicly of his behind-the-scenes efforts.

Johnson’s low profile, DeMint says, helped him negotiate effectively: “If your intent is to get on TV, it’s hard to get people to work with you.”

Even veteran Wisconsin political observers were unaware of Johnson’s deal-making.

“It’s hard to know what someone does behind the scenes,” says David Canon, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but based on Johnson’s public statements, “he does seem to be sticking more to the conservative Republican talking points and [is] not one of those bridge players.”

Indeed, until Johnson voted for the fiscal cliff legislation, it appeared that “he thinks of compromise as a dirty word,” says Mordecai Lee, professor of governmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a former Democratic state legislator.

Coburn disagrees, saying Johnson belongs to “the common-sense caucus: When something is the best you can do and you can’t do any better, you settle for it.”

Johnson maintains that was why he voted for the fiscal cliff deal brokered by McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden, even though he didn’t like it. GOP options were limited, he says, because “you really can’t do a whole lot in the minority in the Senate.” To help Republicans gain a Senate majority, he formed a leadership committee, Strategy PAC.

Johnson’s PAC didn’t limit its giving to candidates as conservative as he is. For the 2012 election, the fund donated $2,500 each to several moderate GOP senators targeted for defeat by the Tea Party, including Maine’s Olympia Snowe (who later chose not to seek re-election), Massachusetts’ Scott Brown (who lost in the general election) and Indiana’s Richard Lugar (who lost in the Republican primary).

In Wisconsin’s 2012 Senate race, Johnson stayed neutral until former Gov. Tommy Thompson defeated three more conservative challengers in the GOP primary. Then his fund gave $5,000 to Thompson, who eventually lost to Democrat Tammy Baldwin.

In explaining his approach, Johnson invokes the “Buckley Rule,” late conservative intellectual William F. Buckley Jr.’s precept of supporting the most conservative candidate who could win in each race.

Overall, five of 12 Republican senators and Senate candidates backed by Johnson’s fund were victorious, while the GOP’s Senate ranks shrunk by two.

That part of Johnson’s strategy didn’t work. Neither did his 2011 bid to become the Senate Republicans’ No. 5 leader, caucus vice chairman. But the vote was close, as Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt edged Johnson, 25-22. Observers billed it as a contest between the Tea Party and the old guard, though Johnson disputes those “false dichotomies.” Plus, with the Tea Party Caucus having only four members, he obviously picked up votes elsewhere.

Still, of the 14 senators who publicly endorsed Johnson in the secret-ballot contest, 13 ranked in the most conservative one-third of the Senate that year (Johnson himself was No. 2, after Coburn, on the National Journal’s annual list). The only moderate openly backing Johnson was South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who later arranged for Johnson to join the March dinner with Obama.

UWM’s Lee says Johnson’s leadership race “signals that he’s an ambitious guy.” For Johnson’s part, he says he only wanted “a position at the leadership table to drive a strategic planning process.”

Strategy again. Those charts are part of his strategy, too.

“My mission is so that the citizens of Wisconsin, hopefully the American public, understand the severity of our [deficit] problem,” Johnson says. “That’d be the first step in the strategy. You have to inform. Then, hopefully, in informing, you’re persuading. Hopefully, you win the argument. Then you can enact policy.”

Johnson is convinced that if he gives people enough data, they will see the federal budget the way he sees it.

“Across the board, people just don’t understand the depth of the fiscal situation facing this country,” Johnson says. “I truly do believe that if they did, people would take it far more seriously.”

To Democrats and interest groups, Johnson’s conviction comes across as arrogance. After the November election, liberals attacked his comments that Obama voters “aren’t properly informed [and] don’t understand the problems facing this nation” and that he hoped to meet with Baldwin “and lay out for her my best understanding of the federal budget” – even though she served on the House Budget Committee as a U.S. representative from Madison.

Johnson says he wasn’t insulting the intelligence of voters; he just believes they’ve been misled by the Obama administration. He also says he has told Baldwin he respects her budget knowledge. Baldwin declined to comment.

But it’s not only Johnson’s public statements that rankle. U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, a Milwaukee Democrat, says some constituent groups arrive at her office “looking like they just came from a war zone.” She says they tell her Johnson is “very blunt” and “dismissive” of their concerns, saying, in effect, “I don’t really care about your issues. I only care about the deficit.”

Johnson calls those claims “a total mischaracterization,” insisting he treats interest groups politely and praises their high-minded motives. Yet when they ask him to support federal funding for their programs, he tells them to “get a new model” of financing.

“When people come in here, I do lay out the budget facts,” Johnson says. “It is very ugly math, and it’s not a particularly pleasant conversation.”

That approach highlights the gulf between Johnson and Democrats like Moore, who believes “people send you to Congress because they want some deliverables.” To Johnson, the Democratic way is “to addict Americans to government,” a practice he believes has inflated the deficit he crusades against, though he also blames Republicans for not doing more about it.

So can he work with Democrats?

Former Democratic U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl answers that question by recounting how he personally worked across party lines for the good of Wisconsin, then adds, “I hope he becomes more of that kind of senator.” But Moore calls Johnson “unapproachable,” insisting he’s the only member of the Wisconsin delegation with whom she’s never worked on any issue.

Johnson says he does cooperate with Democrats, including Baldwin, who is almost as liberal as he is conservative. In April, he and Baldwin agreed to name a bipartisan commission to recommend judicial nominees, a source of dispute with Kohl after

Johnson blocked consideration of former state Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler and Victoria Nourse (then a UW-Madison law professor) for vacancies on the federal bench. Johnson worked with Kohl to ease an environmental rule affecting the paper industry and with Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota to allow transportation officials from her state and Wisconsin to build a new bridge over the St. Croix River.

As in business, Johnson says, “you have to build relationships” to accomplish things in the Senate. Still, most of the relationships Johnson has built are with other Republicans, over lunches and dinners where policy is always on the table. And even as Johnson’s influence grows within the GOP ranks, his partisanship could decide his political future.

Recognizing that his goals may not be accomplished within the next four years, Johnson is gearing up to run again in 2016, a presidential election year that is likely to draw a larger and more diverse turnout than his 2010 race.

But UW-Madison’s Canon says Johnson may have to “dial it down a notch,” with less-polarizing rhetoric and more bipartisanship, to appeal to the independents who could decide the election.

That may not happen. To Johnson, his message remains more important than another term.

“I didn’t run for the U.S. Senate because I wanted to be a U.S. senator,” Johnson says. “I ran because I’m concerned about the direction of this country.”

He’s sticking with his strategy, charts and all.



Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included profiles of U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and Milwaukee Ald. Bob Donovan, as well as a feature about the perennial power struggles of Milwaukee County officials. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.