Main street of Fond du Lac, the picture is in black and white with a pink gradient on top. The street is empty, with a couple of cars parked on the side of the road. American flags are hanging off streetlights.
Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, US, on Wednesday, June 1, 2022. Photographer: Thomas Werner/Bloomberg

Inflation Could Be Path to Re-election for GOP’s Most Vulnerable Senator

Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson is the most vulnerable Senate Republican on the ballot this year and among the most divisive. But the economic pain of his constituents may have given him a lifeline.

By pinning the blame on President Joe Biden, he might just get re-elected in November.

In the first three months of 2022, inflation spread across the cities of this highly competitive swing state more broadly than any other US state, according to Moody’s Analytics estimates shared with Bloomberg. Of the top 50 US metro regions with the biggest price growth in April, Wisconsin cities made up seven of them.

Inflation Tops US Median in Most Wisconsin Metro Areas

Estimated percentage change in Consumer Price Index by metro area, Jan.-April 2022 vs. 2021 👆
  • Metro area
  • Wisconsin metro area
Notes: Some metro areas cross state borders. Any metro area that crosses into Wisconsin has been highlighted in pink, even if it is based primarily in a neighboring state. “US Median” line represents median of 400 metro regions on four-month rolling basis, as tracked by Moody’s Analytics.
Sources: Moody’s Analytics estimates, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

The cost of cheese—a source of pride for one of the country’s largest dairy producers—has soared alongside the price of gasoline, diesel and other staple foods.

“Inflation is a tax on everybody,” Johnson said in a recent Senate-hallway interview. “Be energy independent, drill for fossil fuels, let’s lower the price of energy from that standpoint. Stop deficit spending to the extent we are and quit paying people not to work.”

In moments of economic crisis, voters tend to punish the party in the White House, leaving Johnson an undeniable opening.

Senator Ron Johnson is speaking in front of a senate committee. It’s a close-up portrait of him, he’s framed above the chest, and is looking to the left of the picture, his hand is gesturing in that direction as well. He has grey hair and is wearing a dark suit with a light blue shirt.
Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin, speaks during a Senate Budget Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. Photographer: Greg Nash/The Hill

Tyler Christensen, 29, paints trucks at Oshkosh Defense, a military-vehicle manufacturer, and is seeing his hours cut because the factory can’t get enough parts to keep producing at its previous pace. At the same time, the cost of the gasoline he needs for his 20-mile commute from Fond du Lac is rising rapidly. Like many Midwestern states, Wisconsin has more vehicles per household than other parts of the US.

“Ever since Biden’s taken over, gas prices have gone through the roof and nothing’s changing,” Christensen said.

Gas Prices Soar Toward $5 Across US

Seven-day rolling average of the price per gallon of regular gasoline
Source: GasBuddy

Dissatisfaction runs deep in the Badger State. A new Marquette University Law School poll shows Biden with a 57% disapproval rating in the state, with 75% of those surveyed “very concerned” about inflation.

If Johnson squeaks by in the midterms, it could sink any hopes Democrats had of clinging to control of the Senate. With the GOP favored to nab a majority in the US House, a victory by the 67-year-old multimillionaire and a Republican net gain of just one other seat could help propel a crucial power shift in Washington—if he can overcome his 37% favorability rating.

The Marquette poll of 803 registered Wisconsin voters, conducted June 14-20 with a margin of error of 4.3 percentage points, showed Johnson in a dead heat with any of four leading Democratic opponents.

It’s Johnson full-throated embrace of former President Donald Trump that is making moderate voters queasy. Wisconsin has a pretty even political split and has turned into a culture-wars battleground that includes the state’s response to the expected end of federal abortion rights.

How Johnson Compared to Trump

In 2016, Johnson outperformed Trump in urban and suburban counties, but ran behind in some of the rural areas he’ll need to win re-election
This graphic has three maps: a big one, that shows the difference between Trump and Johnson’s performances in their respective elections in 2016. Johnson outperformed Trump in Milwaukee and in the counties around Milwaukee, and in Mdison. Trump outperformed Johnson in more rural counties. Two tinier maps under the big one show the results of the 2016 election for Trump and for Johnson. Trump won the 2016 presidential race in Wisconsin with 47.2% of the votes. Johnson won the senate race with 50.2% of the votes.
This graphic has three maps: a big one, that shows the difference between Trump and Johnson’s performances in their respective elections in 2016. Johnson outperformed Trump in Milwaukee and in the counties around Milwaukee, and in Mdison. Trump outperformed Johnson in more rural counties. Two tinier maps under the big one show the results of the 2016 election for Trump and for Johnson. Trump won the 2016 presidential race in Wisconsin with 47.2% of the votes. Johnson won the senate race with 50.2% of the votes.
This graphic has three maps: a big one, that shows the difference between Trump and Johnson’s performances in their respective elections in 2016. Johnson outperformed Trump in Milwaukee and in the counties around Milwaukee, and in Mdison. Trump outperformed Johnson in more rural counties. Two tinier maps under the big one show the results of the 2016 election for Trump and for Johnson. Trump won the 2016 presidential race in Wisconsin with 47.2% of the votes. Johnson won the senate race with 50.2% of the votes.
Sources: MIT Election Data + Science Lab, Wisconsin Elections Commission

Democrats point to inflammatory remarks where Johnson minimized the US Capitol attack, questioned the outcome of the 2020 election and pushed a dubious treatment for Covid-19. This week, it came to light that Johnson tried to intervene on Trump’s behalf just moments before Congress met on Jan. 6, 2021, to certify the 2020 election results.

Those statements and controversies could cost Johnson swing voters and gin up Democratic turnout in urban areas, said Joe Zepecki, a Milwaukee-based Democratic strategist.

Wisconsin’s Swingy Political Landscape

Suburban counties in Wisconsin more consistently vote for Republicans compared to the US average. Democrats do well in Wisconsin’s mid-sized cities
  • Wisconsin
  • US average
This chart I a small multiple line chart of voting tendency in Wisconsin counties versus the rest of the United States in presidential elections since 2008. There are 6 tiny charts, each line chart has 2 lines, one for Wisconsin and one for the rest of the US. Each chart depicts the win margin of the winning party in a type of county: urban core county, suburban county, middle sized city, small town, very small town, and purely rural county. 64% of counties in Wisconsin are either a small town or rural. Overall, counties that are Urban core in Wisconsin have leaned more democrat than the rest of the United States. Wisconsin suburbs lean more republican than their US counterparts. Mid-sized cities in Wisconsin lean more democrat. In the other categories, counties in Wisconsin lean more democrat than their counterparts in the rest of the country.
This chart I a small multiple line chart of voting tendency in Wisconsin counties versus the rest of the United States in presidential elections since 2008. There are 6 tiny charts, each line chart has 2 lines, one for Wisconsin and one for the rest of the US. Each chart depicts the win margin of the winning party in a type of county: urban core county, suburban county, middle sized city, small town, very small town, and purely rural county. 64% of counties in Wisconsin are either a small town or rural. Overall, counties that are Urban core in Wisconsin have leaned more democrat than the rest of the United States. Wisconsin suburbs lean more republican than their US counterparts. Mid-sized cities in Wisconsin lean more democrat. In the other categories, counties in Wisconsin lean more democrat than their counterparts in the rest of the country.
This chart I a small multiple line chart of voting tendency in Wisconsin counties versus the rest of the United States in presidential elections since 2008. There are 6 tiny charts, each line chart has 2 lines, one for Wisconsin and one for the rest of the US. Each chart depicts the win margin of the winning party in a type of county: urban core county, suburban county, middle sized city, small town, very small town, and purely rural county. 64% of counties in Wisconsin are either a small town or rural. Overall, counties that are Urban core in Wisconsin have leaned more democrat than the rest of the United States. Wisconsin suburbs lean more republican than their US counterparts. Mid-sized cities in Wisconsin lean more democrat. In the other categories, counties in Wisconsin lean more democrat than their counterparts in the rest of the country.
Methodology: Counties were classified according to the 2013 NCHS Urban-Rural Classification Scheme for Counties. The US analysis is run on 3,116 counties, and the Wisconsin one on 72 counties. Votes for each party are aggregated by category of county, and divided by total number of votes in the category. There is only one county classified as “urban core” in Wisconsin: Milwaukee County.
Sources: MIT Election Data + Science Lab, Wisconsin Elections Commission, CDC and National Center for Health Statistics

Democrats also say exasperation with inflation can’t save him. “The problem is that people like Ron Johnson have not done a single thing to address inflation and rising costs,” said Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, who is narrowly leading among Democratic primary candidates in the Marquette poll.

Still, the weight of higher prices and supply-chain challenges is widely felt. Steven Bennett, who has owned Bernie’s Fine Meats for 17 years in Port Washington along Lake Michigan, complains of soaring beef costs he’d rather not pass to consumers, fewer tourists willing to pay for the gasoline to get to him, and the higher wages needed to attract entry-level help.

He said he doesn’t blame Biden because “I don’t think it’s one man’s ability to change that.”

Steven Bennet is smiling at the camera inside his meat store. He’s wearing a dark apron, a red polo shirt, glasses and a baseball cap. He’s leaning against the glass window in which the meats are laid out (there is a whole lot of them, and honestly I have no idea how the set up is called because I never buy meat.. a glass case? I’m not sure). There is a neon sign in the background that reads “Bernie Hams-Bacon”.
Steven Bennett in Port Washington, Wisconsin, US, on Thursday, June 2, 2022. Photographer: Thomas Werner/Bloomberg

The co-founder of a plastic-sheeting company, Johnson is one of the richest senators, with an estimated net worth of between $15 million and $77 million, according to a 2021 financial disclosure that lists assets in broad ranges. He had never held elective office until 2010 and is now the only Senate GOP incumbent running in a state Biden won in 2020.

Wisconsin is a real political mix: Governor Tony Evers is a Democrat but both chambers of the state legislature are in GOP control. The state’s US House delegation is split among five Republicans and three Democrats. And just two years after state voters sent Johnson to the Senate, they elected Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin, a liberal Democrat and the chamber’s first openly LGBTQ member.

Perhaps cognizant of the split-screen state politics, Johnson appeared to tread carefully when discussing abortion. The poll by Marquette Law School this week showed 58% of Wisconsin voters favor legal abortion in some or all cases, while 35% said it should be banned in most or all cases. It also showed 58% were “very concerned” about abortion, 17 points less than those who said the same about inflation.

Although an 1849 law banning abortion without exception would snap back into effect if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, Johnson said he anticipates the state legislature would pass a new abortion law that would allow some exceptions. A number of other states that generally ban abortion allow the procedure in cases of rape, incest, or the woman’s life.

“Abortion’s not going away,” he said. “We’re not going back to 50 years ago.”

Sophie Crangle, a 20-year-old coffeehouse employee in suburban Ozaukee County who knocks on doors for Democrats, said abortion concerns may not boost her party enough to unseat Johnson. “In Ozaukee County, he’s highly favored,” she said.

Sophie Crangle is standing in front of a body of water and smiling at the camera. There are a lot of lush green trees around her, because the photo was taken during the summer. Crangle is wearing a black top, and has long loose hair.
Sophie Crangle in Thiensville, Wisconsin, US, on Wednesday, June 1, 2022. Photographer: Thomas Werner/Bloomberg

With control of the Senate at stake, money is pouring into the race. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee have reserved millions for television ads in Wisconsin, as have super-PACs run by allies of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The White House has taken a particular interest in the contest, with Biden singling Johnson out in a recent speech for his opposition to Obamacare. Democrats will be looking to maximize turnout in urban strongholds like Milwaukee and Madison, while Johnson could get a boost from rural counties that have trended more Republican since 2016.

Wisconsin has a long history as an unpredictable political pendulum and that is unlikely to change. Take, for example, La Crosse high school teacher Joey Ferrito. He was a no-Trump Republican who in 2016 voted for Hillary Clinton for president and Johnson for Senate.

But after he’s seen Johnson fan questions over the 2020 election, he’s planning to vote for the senator’s Democratic opponent. “I thought Trump wasn’t a real Republican but Ron Johnson was,” said Ferrito, 26. “Turned out I was wrong.”