One year ago Ron Johnson was not even a dot on the Wisconsin political radar. Today, he is the presumed frontrunner for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate.
Equipped with no political experience except a few appearances at Tea Party rallies and a willingness to spend millions of his personal fortune on the campaign, Johnson is now running even with his opponent, Sen. Russ Feingold, in some polls.
However, the same polls show that Wisconsin voters are clueless about the 55-year-old plastics manufacturer. A Public Policy Polling survey at the end of June showed 62% of respondents did not have an opinion, favorable or unfavorable, of Johnson.
Until recently, Johnson has said very little about policy. In June, his staff largely ignored attempts by Isthmus to get information on his political positions or provide access to the candidate, and later he even canceled two events with Tea Party groups after some of the movement's activists voiced confusion and concern over his stands on certain issues.
More than a few voices are skeptical of Johnson's qualifications or principles. The Capital Times editorial board refers to him as "Ron Johnson (R-Big Bank Account)." His primary opponent, Dave Westlake, criticizes Johnson for not being more accessible to the public, in contrast to his low-budget grassroots campaign.
"I want to talk to people who are going to challenge me," Westlake tells Isthmus, "not just go to Republican fundraisers."
Like many rookie candidates, Ron Johnson has created a narrative about his candidacy based on his success in the private sector. He's made millions since joining Pacur, a plastics manufacturer founded by his brother-in-law in 1979.
Johnson's most recent tax returns reveal a gross income last year of roughly $1.5 million. But his true wealth is better represented in his stock portfolio, which includes five holdings each worth between $1 million and $5 million, and more than a dozen others each worth between $100,000 and $1 million. His charitable contributions since 2005 top $2 million.
Although he is new to politics, Johnson served as chair of the Oshkosh Partners in Education Council, a group associated with the Chamber of Commerce. He also sat on the financial board of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay.
In those roles, he made decisions that hinted at his rightward political leanings.
For instance, this March he invited controversial author Charles Murray to speak to the Education Council. Murray is best known for offering genetic explanations for why certain people, including entire ethnic groups, are less prosperous in society.
Johnson also testified in support of the Catholic Church before a state Senate committee that was debating a bill to lift the statute of limitations on sexual abuse suits against priests. "I believe it is a valid question to ask whether the employer of a perpetrator should also be severely damaged, or possibly destroyed, in our legitimate desire for justice," he said.
Since declaring his candidacy in May, Johnson has oriented most of his rhetoric toward proving his conservative credentials to the GOP base.
He has paid homage to libertarians by calling Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged his "foundational book." And playing upon a decades-old culture war, he has referred to leaders in Washington as "the same liberals who tor[e] our country apart in the 1960s."
But Johnson's libertarianism is not absolute. He has dismayed some Tea Party members with his support of the Patriot Act. "When your nation is at risk from things like international terrorism, you have to react to that," he told the Rock River Patriots on June 11. "Sometimes you have to give up a little."
When pressed on the war in Afghanistan, Johnson toes a delicate line, criticizing the president's management of the war but expressing support for the mission and rejecting a timetable for withdrawal.
"But I'm just, again, very concerned about the direction of, you know, this policy under this president," Johnson told blogger Steve Schwerbel. "The only thing that kind of keeps me supportive of it is the fact that we have [Gen.] David Petraeus."
In the same interview, he emphasized the importance of diplomacy before military action. But when prodded by Tea Party activists, Johnson called the United Nations "a joke."
Johnson's positions generally reflect a view that government does more to hinder than help the economy. For instance, he opposes the Wall Street bailout approved under President Bush, as well as the stimulus package approved by President Obama.
"Ron does not believe the federal government is capable of picking 'winners and losers' and should not remove capital from the private sector to create more government programs and jobs, which are unsustainable," his website explains.
This logic extends into the realm of social programs, including unemployment benefits.
"Extending unemployment benefits without paying for the new spending will add billions to our debt, and Russ Feingold knows it," said Juston Johnson, Ron Johnson's (unrelated) campaign manager, in a statement.
And Johnson calls the health-care bill passed by Democrats "an assault on our freedom." He claims the law is merely one step toward the eventual establishment of a single-payer system of health care.
"I think it's designed to drive up the price of private health care, we've already seen that," Johnson said on Upfront with Mike Gousha. "What will end up happening is the public will get outraged at how expensive the private insurance will be, then they'll go right to the government and say, 'save us, give us a government solution.'"
Nonetheless, Johnson's campaign does support certain government remedies in health care, like coverage for people with preexisting conditions and programs like the state's Health Insurance Risk-Sharing Program, for individuals who cannot find insurance in the private market.
As Ron Johnson sees it, high levels of taxation equate with low levels of liberty. "Ronald Reagan's principled policies ushered in two decades of peace and prosperity," Johnson told George Will of the Washington Post. "With a 28% top tax rate, for a brief moment, we were actually 72% free."
But Johnson is reluctant to overhaul the nation's tax system, as some (including Westlake) would like. He told the Rock River Patriots, "I think there's an awful lot of sense to an income tax."
And, like Feingold, Johnson has stated that businesses should not be too big to fail, saying this "means that our regulations have already failed." He criticizes cap-and-trade legislation, as does Feingold, albeit for different reasons.
While Feingold says it would be unfair to Wisconsin, Johnson pegs it as a job-killing energy tax. He calls instead for the exploitation of more conventional energy resources. "The bottom line is that we are an oil-based economy, and there's nothing we're going to do to get off of that for many, many years," he writes on his website.
On social issues, Johnson toes the socially conservative line expected of Wisconsin Republicans.
"I am a pretty traditional guy," he states on his website. "I support a culture of life and I believe marriage is between one man and one woman." Unlike Westlake, however, Johnson would allow legal abortion in cases of rape or incest.
And amid increasing public acceptance of gay rights, Johnson downplays the cultural issues that have dominated past elections. "It's just not much of an issue here in Wisconsin," he said in response to a question about gay marriage from WisPolitics.com.