Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson is poised to win Tuesday's primary. His chances in November look rocky

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The U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin is one of the most-watched midterms and could determine which party controls the upper chamber of Congress. The Badger State’s primary is one five being held Tuesday.

  • There are three main reasons more Wisconsin voters have an unfavorable view of Sen. Ron Johnson.
  • Sen. Ron Johnson said he would only serve two terms. In January, he ran for a third term.
  • Sen. Ron Johnson has been down in the polls before, but he hasn’t rebounded this time.

WASHINGTON – Dorlise Brown is the type of Wisconsin voter who could give incumbent GOP Sen. Ron Johnson trouble this year. 

The 48-year-old high school social studies teacher in Kenosha is an independent who has typically leaned Republican. 

But not this time. 

“Republicans showed their hand on abortion,” Brown said. 

Wisconsin is one of four states (including Connecticut, Minnesota and Vermont) where voters head to the polls Tuesday to pick the nominees for the general election in November.

Although Johnson is expected to easily win the nomination Tuesday, polling shows many Wisconsin voters have cooled on Johnson in a state where there are about an equal number of Democrats and Republicans. It’s a battleground state where a few thousand independents can swing an election. 

Brown has been uncomfortable with the direction of the GOP since former President George W. Bush left office. And she disavowed the party after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

But it’s how members have voted on abortion rights that is motivating her vote this year. 

Johnson in May voted against a Democratic bill that would have enshrined Roe v. Wade into law following the Supreme Court’s ruling in June to let states decide the rules on abortion. 

“I’m not voting for him because he doesn’t support a woman’s choice,” Brown said. 

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Johnson in jeopardy

Johnson has been down in the polls before and made a comeback just in time for the election. That’s what happened during his 2016 election, according to Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll. 

The incumbent senator’s favorability rating was 37% in June, according to the most recent Marquette poll. 

Johnson’s favorability has hovered somewhere in the 30s, occasionally dipping into the 20s, for the last 10 years. In that same period of time, his unfavorability rating has grown from 25% to 46%. 

“He’s well underwater,” Franklin said. 

But this time he doesn’t seem to be mounting a comeback and is behind the curve compared to where he was six years ago, he said.

Johnson’s headwinds include, Covid, abortion, election conspiracies

A few factors seem to be contributing to a decline in Johnson’s approval ratings, based on polling and voter feedback: his response to the pandemic, his opposition to abortion rights, and his election conspiracies. 

For example, after Johnson said mouthwash was an effective COVID treatment, polling showed about 30% of voters trusted his coronavirus response. Meanwhile, 50% trusted Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ response, which typically followed federal health recommendations like vaccines. 

Johnson has espoused other conspiracy theories since then about the armed insurrection and more, but he has retained support from the majority of Wisconsin Republicans, polling shows.

Last week, he drew criticism when he called for Social Security and Medicare to become discretionary spending programs that would have to be approved annually rather than automatically funded entitlement programs.

He has developed a pattern of making outlandish statements on talk radio and podcasts, then walks them back and blames the media, Franklin said. 

“That may help him with his base, but not with independents where’s he’s losing support,” he said. 

In an election where the abortion issue could increase turnout from Democrats, Johnson may need to win more independents to hold on to his seat. 

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Johnson has been ‘counted out before’

Awaiting Johnson on the other side of the primary is Democratic frontrunner, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who’s expected to win his primary after rivals bowed out. Despite the momentum behind him, Jessica Taylor of the non-partisan Cook Political Report expects the race to go down to the wire.

“Johnson has been counted out before, triaged off the map in 2016, and left for dead by the national party only to defeat former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold again in a rematch of their 2010 race,” she wrote in a recent analysis. “And the current national climate – even though it appears to have improved slightly for Democrats over the past few weeks – is one that would still likely give Johnson tailwinds.”

Johnson, who did not respond to an interview request from USA TODAY, set a self-imposed, two-term limit that he retracted in January, when he announced his bid for a third six-year term. 

“I believe America is in peril,” he said in a Wall Street Journal op-ed when announcing his candidacy. “Much as I’d like to ease into a quiet retirement, I don’t feel I should.”

The U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin is one of the most-watched in the midterms and could determine which party controls the upper chamber of Congress. 

Despite Johnson’s flagging approval ratings, Johnson trails by only 2 points, to Barnes, according to the Marquette poll. That’s well within the margin of error, Franklin said. 

Barnes said one of the reasons he is running is because Johnson is a “self-serving, out-of-touch, ultra-millionaire politician who cares about himself more than the people of Wisconsin,” and his comments about Social Security and Medicare prove that. 

“It’s exactly why I decided to run for the U.S. Senate, to kick him out of office because people are going to continue to be left behind as long as he’s in office,” Mandela said last week on MSNBC. 

Three other Democrats in the race have dropped out to unite around Barnes – a coalition Wisconsin Republicans don’t have, according to Franklin. 

“The Democratic Party is very unified,” he said. “If the Republican Party is not unified, it could mean more problems for Johnson.”

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Candy Woodall is a Congress reporter for USA TODAY. She can be reached at cwoodall@usatoday.com or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.

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