Voters were fed up with the political establishment and looking for a change. They wanted an outsider, someone whose name they hadn’t heard a million times before, someone not entrenched in the Washington bureaucracy. Their call was answered by a wealthy businessman whose frustration with the government matched their own, who had never before held elected office, who wasn’t part of the problem.
The year was 2010 and an Oshkosh plastics manufacturer named Ron Johnson delivered an unexpected blow to a name synonymous with Wisconsin politics, defeating Russ Feingold by five points and replacing him in the U.S. Senate.
Six years later, many of the same attitudes and frustrations have contributed to the rise of Donald Trump within the Republican Party. The billionaire businessman is in an ugly battle with a name synonymous with American politics: Democratic former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Back in the Badger State, Johnson and Feingold will meet on the ballot again as the Democrat angles to become the third former senator since 1956 to return to the seat he once held.
For an incumbent, Johnson has struggled, not once taking the lead in the state’s most reliable public polling. But he’s also managed to tighten up the scorecard in the final weeks, while the presidential contest has proven the 2016 electoral climate is nothing if not unpredictable.
Ron Johnson pulled his silver minivan into the driveway of Steve and Sally Miller’s dairy farm on a gray Friday morning in late September. He stepped out, clad in jeans and a striped dress shirt, and warmly greeted the extended family assembled in front of the Millers’ home.
After a few moments of chatting about the history of the farm, Johnson retrieved a bright-red Wisconsin pullover from the van. It was one of the first finger-numbingly brisk days of autumn and the sky couldn’t seem to make up its mind whether to rain, settling instead on a constant mist.
Tucked among the rolling hills of La Crosse County, the Millers’ farm grows a cash crop of corn and soybeans and is home to 60 dairy cows. A friend active in the county Republican party had asked Steve and Sally a few days before if they’d be interested in hosting the senator, and they obliged.
“He’s a Republican,” Sally said with a grin when asked what she liked about the senator. “And most of all, he’s going to go to bat for the farmers.”
Still, Johnson’s perspective lines up with what the Millers said they’re looking for in a senator.
Regulations, particularly governing the agriculture industry, have grown out of control, they said. They’re looking for someone who will rein them in. Steve Miller is also concerned about trade and cracking down on illegal immigration.
“If we can keep some of the immigrants out of here and try and put some of our local people to work, I think at the end of the day a lot of these people will feel a lot better about themselves, too,” he said.
They’d like to see markets opened up so they can start exporting more of their products, the Millers said.
They’re feeling the squeeze from large-scale dairy operations, which they said affect their bottom line but also have a more negative impact on the environment than small operations like theirs.
“It’s tough,” Sally said. “Because right now the prices are so low and our investments are so high that it’s been a tough year.”
Steve said he doesn’t believe in asking for government subsidies, but that doesn’t mean lawmakers don’t play a role in enacting policies that will help the industry. Politics plays a much larger role in agriculture now than it did years ago, he said.
And in turn, agriculture plays its own role in politics. Johnson accepted endorsements that day from the Wisconsin Farm Bureau, Dairy Business Association, Wisconsin Cattlemen’s Association and Wisconsin Pork Association.
A.V. Roth of the Wisconsin Pork Association said the Obama administration’s Waters of the U.S. Rule could “affect farmers’ right to best utilize their land.”
Johnson said Feingold paved the way to what he considers government overreach with his Clean Water Restoration Act for Waters of the U.S., which seeks to define which bodies of water fall under the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers and are covered by the Clean Water Rule.
On immigration, Johnson said, “the number one component of my border security bill would be a functioning guest worker program, so farmers … actually have a legal system to get the workers to milk the cows, to pick the vegetables, to clean our hotels. That’s something we have to do. That’s extremely important.”
Cody Heller of the Dairy Business Association praised Johnson for that stance. He said dairy farmers lose sleep over concerns about illegal labor.
“He’s … focusing on getting a plan that actually works for us that’s legal, that’s within the realm of the law, that keeps our country safe,” Heller said.
“The more doors we can open, the more trade barriers we can take down to get our products out, the happier agriculture is,” said Joe Bragger of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation.
Bragger said it’s Johnson’s stance on trade, the Waters of the U.S. rule and delisting wolves as an endangered species that have earned him the Farm Bureau’s support. Johnson has “gone out of his way” to acknowledge the concerns of the agriculture industry, Bragger said.
“It seems like we all start (small) and then drift away, and then we forget,” Bragger said. “I’ve got to remind myself as Farm Bureau director, I’m so glad that every day I go back home and farm. Every day I’m still involved at the county level in Farm Bureau, because that means I still have my feet in it. You get pulled away long enough, you’ve lost reality … and I think (Johnson) is not that far removed that he’s still not one of us. I think that’s important.”
Johnson’s campaign has sought to paint Feingold as a career politician — a Washington insider who cares more about returning to the seat than serving constituents — who has abandoned the principles that once defined him.
“My background over the 34 years when he was a career politician, most of that 34 years I was involved in the private sector building a good Wisconsin manufacturing company, producing Wisconsin jobs, and then in the very short period of time that I’ve been your United States senator, I’ve used that same kind of outsider perspective — and trust me, it’s a completely different perspective,” Johnson said. “I’m the only manufacturer in the United States Senate.”
On the campaign trail, Johnson has taken to urging supporters and journalists to ask Feingold what he accomplished during his tenure in public office. Asked about his own legislative accomplishments, Johnson touted the Federal Cybersecurity Enhancement Act of 2015, an effort to protect government agencies from hackers, and a bill that made it easier to hire military veterans as Customs and Border Protection officers.
“I’ve actually gotten real results. Again, he’s got the one high-profile failure, campaign finance reform. I’ve got dozens — I guess low-profile — dozens of low-profile successes,” Johnson said.