Ron Johnson - Joe McCarthy illustration

To students of Wisconsin’s political history, the parallel between the two moments is evident.

Republican Joseph McCarthy, U.S. senator from Wisconsin, was repudiated in 1954 after years of smearing patriotic fellow Americans as communists. At the Army-McCarthy hearings, attorney Joseph Welch finally called out McCarthy: “Until this moment, senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”

That moment marked the decline of McCarthy’s darkly effective political brand and led to his censure by the Senate.

Republican Ron Johnson, U.S. senator from Wisconsin, this week was chased across the U.S. Capitol grounds by reporters. Johnson tried desperately but vainly to deflect blame onto his staff for attempting to hand-deliver a list of fake presidential electors to then-Vice President Mike Pence on the day of the insurrection.

This week’s revelation indicates the depth of Johnson’s role in Donald Trump's effort to stop the certification of the 2020 presidential election, a campaign built on the lies of Trump and others alleging non-existent election fraud that in turn triggered the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Will this incident mark a McCarthy-like “have you no decency” tipping point for Johnson as he seeks a third term this fall? It certainly could.

The news about Johnson predictably led websites of the Cap Times, the Wisconsin State Journal and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, but it also led the website of the Washington Post during Tuesday’s House committee hearing on the insurrection with this headline: “Johnson offered to deliver fake electors to Pence, committee says in video.”

This national news was seized upon by Johnson critics. A fundraising email from the state Democratic Party arrived within hours. Predictable statements, social media commentary and editorials fulminating and hyperventilating against Johnson ensued.

But I found myself looking ahead. How will this play in Wisconsin, whose electorate has confounded me for the more than four decades I have been writing about politics here? Over those years, I have met and interviewed all of the seven U.S. senators elected from Wisconsin since McCarthy, who died in 1957.

There was Democrat William Proxmire, once a Capital Times reporter, who was a high-strung exercise buff best known nationally for a monthly “award” castigating wasteful government spending. And there was Democrat Gaylord Nelson, a former governor and the revered creator of Earth Day, whose 2005 memorial service filled every nook of the state Capitol Rotunda and was attended by Joe Biden, then a U.S. senator.

There was Bob Kasten, a traditional pro-business Republican elected in the Ronald Reagan wave of 1980, and later Democrat Russ Feingold, the brainy and urbane Rhodes Scholar whom Johnson defeated twice. There was the quintessentially decent and humble Herb Kohl, a rare Democrat given that he was also a highly successful businessman.

And, finally, there’s Wisconsin’s other incumbent senator, Democrat Tammy Baldwin, a liberal whose authenticity and effectiveness should be studied by aspiring progressive candidates everywhere.

What do these seven have in common? Next to nothing. Which is my point.

Wisconsin’s electorate is most defined by its unpredictability. No other state has two senators as polar opposite as Baldwin and Johnson.

Which brings me back to McCarthy. How did Wisconsin react to McCarthy after that “no decency” moment? (McCarthy died before again facing voters.)

I asked Larry Tye, a former Boston Globe reporter and author of “Demagogue” The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy.” The Cap Times excerpted Tye’s 2020 book in a passage focusing on how McCarthy defeated incumbent U.S. Sen. Robert La Follette Jr., son of the famous progressive “Fighting Bob.”

Tye emailed me: “Joe won his first term less for his appeal, even as a World War II hero, than because ‘Young Bob’ La Follette had been captured by Washington, ran a pathetic campaign, and essentially ceded his seat. McCarthy won his second term because America was in the grips of a Cold War frenzy, and Joe had — via fear-mongering — presented himself as a simple-minded answer.”

“The big question, as you say, is whether your state would have followed the Senate and the national polls in rejecting him after the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings and censure. (Given its narrow political divide then, as now, it wouldn't have taken much for a Democrat or a more moderate Republican to win the seat).

“My answer: absolutely.

“I believe that because by then McCarthy had been shunned by the White House and his GOP Senate colleagues. Prominent Republicans along with Democrats in Wisconsin were lining up to challenge him. He was drinking what he admitted to be three highballs a day, and others said was a quart of whisky.

“Most of all I believe it because he’d run out of steam, and Wisconsinites finally had run out of patience. He told one elderly companion then, ‘Jean (his wife) and I have enough money for a small cattle spread in Arizona. I might open a little law office.’ ”

In his book, Tye wrote that McCarthy had appealed to virulent anti-communists but also to those people in Wisconsin “who distrusted big institutions — government, labor and business — as much as they hated Reds, radicals and eggheads.”

Substitute “elites” for “eggheads” and “socialists” for “Reds,” and you are describing Johnson’s base of support.

So, nearly seven decades later, how might Wisconsin voters react to news of Johnson’s Jan. 6 role?

It’s not as if Johnson’s evolution from a traditional wealthy, pro-business Republican to radical Trumper was not already documented, as noted last winter in this New York Times column: “He has become known as perhaps the chamber’s foremost spreader of absurd yet dangerous conspiracy theories — especially in the areas of anti-vaccine insanity and the election-fraud delusions of a certain former president.”

I believe this fall’s election will hinge on how effectively the Democrat, whoever wins the primary, can withstand the avalanche of perhaps unprecedented slime coming their way. Republican money barons know the importance of the Wisconsin seat to Senate control.

After this week, when they stop cringing at the Johnson spectacle, they will double down on trying to make his foe seem somehow worse. A heavy lift, but watch for it.

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