Until last fall, Republican Ron Johnson was just an intensely private guy with a good business and a nice house on Lake Winnebago. He kept a stack of Wall Street Journals next to his bed, folded just right so he wouldn’t forget to read columnist Dan Henninger on this or Paul Gigot on that. A trim, silver-haired businessman, he was rich but unknown, even in this, his hometown, despite big donations to Lourdes High School and his thriving plastics company here.
Running for office never crossed his mind.
Barack Obama changed all that.
Until last fall, Wisconsin seemed destined to again send a Democrat to the Senate, just like it had for 18 years, since Sen. Russ Feingold leveraged a clever, no-skeletons-in-my-closet campaign to oust Republican Robert Kasten. Feingold, plenty liberal but with a cantankerous streak that fit the times, seemed a sure bet to go back to Washington.
Obama might be about to change that, too.
The story of the 2010 election — the tea party drama, the anti-Obama tension, the prominence of right-wing media figures and a wounded Democratic incumbent — all can be distilled in one state, Wisconsin, and through one candidate, Johnson.
Much like his contemporaries — Sharron Angle in Nevada or Rand Paul in Kentucky or Joe Miller in Alaska — Johnson talks the talk of the tea party and also talks of going to Washington as less a lawmaker, more a messenger. He argues with conviction that Obama represents nothing less than a threat to turn America into a “socialist, European-style” state, and audiences nod along, the judgment sounding neither rabid nor harsh — even in Wisconsin, a state that fell hard for Obama.