Check out what they’re saying:
Republican strategists in the state credit much of Johnson’s win to a media strategy they say effectively painted Feingold as a typical politician while putting Johnson on the right side of an anti-Washington sentiment by focusing on small, individual accomplishments from his time as senator.
“You’d hear that from regular people: He became really likable in a year where politicians were very unlikable,” said Bill McCoshen, a Republican strategist in the state.
One ad, titled ”Grace,” detailed how Johnson helped a family adopt a child from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Targeted online toward women, the ad increased support from women by 16 points in a Google brand-lift survey, and viewers waited more than twice as long to skip it as they do on political ads in general.
One ad featured Johnson at a white board, casting himself as the cheerful outsider amid a gang of politicians. Another featured a family from Green Bay, whose daughter Johnson had helped bring home from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“We needed to make clear who Ron was,” one Johnson insider said. “We established [Feingold] as the equivalent of politics: more of the same, 34 years. And at the end of the day, the undercurrent of this election was outsider.”
In fact, there is evidence that Johnson’s strong campaign has a “reverse coattails” effect — that is, he helped Donald Trump win, not the other way around. Trump also trailed consistently in the polls but ended up winning the Badger State over Hillary Clinton by just over 27,000 votes.
Johnson, however, fared better than the Republican nominee, winning reelection by almost 100,000 votes – close to the same margin Johnson beat Feingold by in 2010. More Wisconsinites actually voted in the Senate race than for either Trump or Clinton at the top of the ticket.
What Johnson also had that many of his Republican Senate colleagues running this cycle did not was a superior and highly efficient ground game operation in Wisconsin. Run by the state GOP, the organization has been running almost continuously the last six years growing and building on the success of Scott Walker’s gubernatorial campaigns and successful anti-recall effort.
Ignoring the polls and pundits, Johnson and his campaign turned up the campaigning and spending over the final weeks. Johnson appeared at a rally with Donald Trump in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and spent the last full weekend on a bus tour around the state with Speaker of the House and Wisconsin native Paul Ryan.
From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
But in a series of ads that ran after Labor Day, Johnson showed a softer side, whether championing the Joseph Project, an initiative that linked Milwaukee workers with jobs in Sheboygan, or changing his grandson’s diaper. Some of the ads might have been hokey, but they broke through in an age of cookie-cutter political commercials that could run in any state for any candidate.
And Johnson’s campaign — buttressed by third-party groups that poured into the race in the closing weeks once the polls had turned — drove home a message on Feingold. Whether fair or not, Republicans presented Feingold as a 34-year career politician who accomplished little and said one thing while doing another.
Johnson’s strategy was initially charted by a consultant, Brad Todd. He recognized that Johnson, trailing by double digits in early Marquette polls, needed to dig in and do early work outstate, targeting towns of fewer than 10,000 people in the north and northwest. That was the area that turned out for Gov. Scott Walker in his races and became a hotbed for support for President-elect Donald Trump.
In southeastern Wisconsin, there was a reverse coattail effect, with Johnson doing better than Trump.
Johnson shuttled between the two regions, making frequent stops in small media markets throughout the north central part of the state, attempting to talk to every newspaper and radio station, no matter how small its circulation or listenership. Johnson repeatedly visited Rhinelander, population 7,798, because a local NBC affiliate is located there.
Johnson’s campaign also aired a slew of geography-specific radio ads about topics like delisting the grey wolf from the endangered species list and allowing a local television affiliate to air Packers games in Wisconsin instead of showing the Minnesota Vikings. Another ad attacked Feingold for sponsoring the Waters of the United States rule during his time in the Senate.
Johnson’s campaign managed to make him look like the outsider in the race despite running as the incumbent, an effort aided by Feingold’s own previous 18 years in the Senate.
That was a message, the campaign said, that resonated among small-town residents who had backed President Barack Obama and Democratic Senate candidate Tammy Baldwin in 2012, but who, even more than most, were fed up with the political status quo.
“That was the wave, that was the national environment,” Ankney said. “People are sick of what’s happening in Washington, D.C., and we made sure to capitalize on that.”
Inside the Johnson campaign, officials made a rallying cry out of a speech in the movie “Any Given Sunday.” The film, starring Al Pacino, features a burnt-out football coach making an impassioned pre-game speech about importance of fighting “one inch at a time.”
Members of the campaign would watch the speech in staff meetings and quote it regularly during the day, and Ankney would include a tagline of “fight for that inch” in her emails to staff and surrogates. But the only way to find those inches, they said, was through the data they had assembled.
“Football analogies are common in politics,” said Brian Reisinger, a spokesman for the campaign. “But we couldn’t have fought for that inch if we didn’t have a data game tracking it.”