Will: A measure of the country's metabolism
MILWAUKEE – In 49 states, when you order breakfast in a restaurant you might be asked if you would like pancakes or an omelet. In Wisconsin, you are asked if you would like pancakes with your omelet. Ron Johnson would, thank you. This Republican U.S. senator, who is burning prodigious amounts of calories campaigning for a second and final term, really does represent the hearty eaters who were fueling up at a Perkins restaurant here on a recent Sunday morning.
In 2010, Johnson left his plastics manufacturing company that made him wealthy enough to try, against his preference for the private sector and against his wife's adamant disapproval, to become the only manufacturer in the Senate. He surfed into that chamber on the Republican wave raised by two things that annoyed Johnson enough to propel him into politics — the Obama administration's stimulus that did not stimulate, and Obamacare, which six years later is in intensive care.
Johnson defeated a three-term incumbent, Russ Feingold, who this year is again Johnson's opponent. Being devoted environmentalists, Democrats believe in recycling even their candidates: In Indiana, too, a former senator, Evan Bayh, is in a tight race trying to return to Washington.
In a season supposedly inimical to insiders, Feingold, 63, is more of this detested breed than is Johnson. Feingold first won elective office at age 29 and his involuntary six-year sojourn in the private sector has been an aberration he is eager to end. Johnson, 61, said when seeking his first term that he would never seek a third.
Johnson says he has traveled 130,000 miles — "that's with me behind the wheel" — to ask audiences: How many of you think the government is efficient and effective? When no hands are raised, he asks: Why, then, would you want it enlarged?
Johnson was considered so vulnerable this year that the national party essentially wrote him off — indeed, it virtually announced as much by its parsimonious support. Ten months ago he trailed Feingold by double digits. He is attempting to become the first Wisconsin Republican since 1980 to win a Senate election in a presidential year. In that year, Ronald Reagan's coattails pulled 16 freshmen Republicans into the Senate.
This year, Johnson faces headwinds beyond the fact that the unhinged spectacle at the top of the Republican ticket lost the Wisconsin primary to Ted Cruz by 13 points. Wisconsin last voted for a Republican presidential candidate in 1984 and is much more congenial to Republicans in non-presidential years, when turnout is lower. In 2010, the total vote for Senate candidates was 2,171,331. In the presidential year 2012, when Democrat Tammy Baldwin defeated former Gov. Tommy Thompson for the state's other Senate seat, the total vote surged to 3,009,411.
Nevertheless, although Hilary Clinton is expected to win Wisconsin handily, Johnson still could be the unlikely savior of Republicans' Senate control: Two recent public polls show Johnson behind by less than the polls' margins of error. This is partly because, in a year of unrelieved political ugliness, he has done something eccentric: He has run television ads that make people smile rather than wince. One concerns his support for a faith-based program teaching unemployed inner-city residents the modalities of job seeking (interviews, etc.); the other highlights Johnson helping a Wisconsin couple bring their adopted child home from Congo.
This year of the counterintuitive has reached an appropriate culmination: Republican retention of Senate control might depend on weakness at the top of the ticket starting immediately. If Donald Trump's chances of winning are soon seen to be, as they actually are, vanishingly small, Republican Senate candidates can explicitly encourage tactical voting: They can acknowledge that Trump is toast and can urge voters to send Republicans to Washington as a check on President Hillary Clinton.
In 22 of the 36 election cycles — presidential and off-year — in the 70 years since World War II, voters have produced divided government, giving at least one house of Congress to the party not holding the presidency. This wholesome American instinct for checks and balances is particularly pertinent now because Clinton will take office as an unprecedentedly unpopular new president.
For conservatives, this autumn has been about simultaneously stopping Trump and preserving Republicans' Senate control to stymie Clinton. Johnson will return either to the Senate and the invigorating business of preventing progressives' mischief, or to private life. Come what may, he says, "I'll be the calmest guy on election night."
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post.