Ron Johnson's 2016 Opponents Strike Early

 Joe Murray  |    October 03, 2013

In August 2013, the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) unleashed two environmental attack ads against GOP Senator Ron Johnson, accusing him of being a “climate change denier” who voted to let oil and gas companies “keep spewing unlimited carbon pollution into our air.”

While it isn’t unusual for a national environmental group to launch a broadside attack against a sitting U.S. Senator for voting against their legislative agenda, it is very unusual for the attacks to start nearly three years before Johnson could face a re-election in 2016. Two schools of thought explain why environmental advocates, and perhaps others to follow, are spending money and effort attacking Johnson so early in the election cycle.

A good example of the first school comes from liberal blogger Greg Sargent of The Plum Line: “It’s long been a source of frustration for environmentalists that expressions of rank climate denialism are not anywhere near as politically toxic as crazy comments about abortion, birth control or immigration have historically proved. Environmentalists are engaged in a long-term campaign to change that.” 

School of thought number two, from Collin Roth, who writes for the conservative website Right Wisconsin: “The LCV ad campaign against Sen. Johnson is an attempt to soften the Senator up before 2016. For a group concerned about waste and conservation, one would expect them to not flush their money down the toilet. But, that appears to be precisely what they are doing with this joke of an ad campaign three years before an election.”

So who’s right — Sargent or Roth? Both schools of thought have merit, but this has more to do with electoral politics in 2016 than Sargent would have you believe. If you look at the bigger picture and factor in current polling on Johnson, presidential vs. midterm election turnout, and historical Democrat or Republican victories in presidential election years, you may see why environmental and Democratic political strategists believe Johnson is vulnerable in 2016.


The most credible, non-partisan polling in Wisconsin is the Marquette Law School Poll, directed by Professor Charles Franklin. In two statewide surveys this year, the polling tested Sen. Johnson’s “favorable” and “unfavorable” rating among voters with these results:

These results indicate that a large segment of Wisconsin voters don’t have a strong opinion of Ron Johnson one way or another. Nearly 40 percent of those surveyed have “not heard enough” about Sen. Johnson to approve or disapprove of the job he is doing.

This indifference may explain why environmental groups decided to advertise against Johnson three years in advance of his next election. Johnson’s opponents have apparently decided to begin the process of defining him for voters before he has a chance to further define himself. If environmentalists can define Johnson as someone who votes with “big oil” and a “climate change denier” early, all the better for their chances in 2016.

Presidential vs. midterm turnout

Ron Johnson was elected in 2010, the best midterm election for the GOP in 72 years. Johnson defeated progressive icon Russ Feingold in a Tea Party-inspired, GOP wave election year that turned Wisconsin’s political landscape from solid blue to solid red.
Johnson will run for re-election in 2016, a presidential election year with sharply higher voter turnout, in a “battleground” state that generates enormous amounts of political organizing and election spending. The 2010 midterm electorate that elected Johnson over

Feingold will be replaced by a much larger and diverse “swing state” electorate generated by an open seat contest for president in 2016. 



A few more facts regarding Wisconsin presidential and U.S. Senate races: 

  • History shows that the party that carries the presidential race in Wisconsin in 2016 is very likely to win the U.S. Senate race. According to research from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, “Wisconsin has voted for the same political party in (now) 15 of 17 cycles, dating back to the birth of popular vote contests in 1914.” In short, if the Democrat presidential nominee carries Wisconsin in 2016, Johnson has a steeper uphill climb for his re-election bid. The two elections in 99 years where Wisconsin voters rendered a split decision were in 1940 — in which Democrat presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt carried Wisconsin, and Progressive Senator Bob LaFollette won a fourth term, and in 1968 — when Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon carried Wisconsin, and Democrat Gaylord Nelson won the Senate seat.
  • Democrats have carried Wisconsin in presidential elections seven times in a row. The last time Republicans carried Wisconsin was Ronald Reagan in 1984. An open seat presidential contest in 2016 may keep the race close — think George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 — but Wisconsin now starts the 2016 contest in the “likely Democrat” category.
  • Since 1948 (post WWII), in presidential election years where a U.S. Senate seat was on the ballot in Wisconsin, the Democrats have held the advantage: eight wins for Democrats, three wins for the GOP. The only Republicans to carry Wisconsin in presidential election years since World War II were Joe McCarthy in 1952, Alexander Wiley in 1956 and Bob Kasten in 1980. This isn’t to suggest that Johnson can’t win in 2016 — only that history sides more often with Democrats under certain circumstances. One GOP victory in 57 years can’t be a reassuring statistic for Sen. Johnson.

So, let’s go back to another statement from blogger Greg Sargent: “What’s particularly interesting about the targeting of Johnson is that the Senator isn’t up for re-election until 2016, which is to say this isn’t about electoral politics.”

A close look at the big picture would strongly suggest the opposite — it is in fact about politics. The real question is whether or not this is a waste of money or a politically savvy first strike?

Joe Murray is Director of Political and Governmental Affairs for the WRA.

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