Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. Scott Bauer / AP

Why the Chairman of the Senate Oversight Committee's Career May Be in Danger

Being a political newcomer has its drawbacks.

MADISON, Wisconsin—Talk to many Wisconsin Republicans about Ron Johnson, and they'll ask to keep their names out of the story. On the record, their kindest praise can sound like a backhanded compliment: The freshman senator is getting better at his job.

At a time of deep anger with government, many candidates profess to be political newcomers. With Johnson, it had the uncommon virtue of actually being true. The accountant who spent decades running a Wisconsin-based plastics company had never held elective office when he won his race in 2010—convincing voters, as he did in one memorable TV ad, that the Senate needed a manufacturer instead of a lawyer.

The hard part came next. Most observers expected the business executive with little experience in politics to struggle in the Senate; few, however, expected the learning curve to be as steep as it was. Interviews with ideological allies, Senate operatives, and Wisconsin Republicans all paint a strikingly similar picture of a political novice who struggled with basic tasks, alienated allies, and even prompted speculation that he wouldn't seek another term in office.

There's little doubt, in the minds of those Republicans, that Johnson has grown into his job, especially in the past year. It's just unclear if the improvement has come too late for a difficult reelection fight against the Democrat he defeated in 2010, former Sen. Russ Feingold.

"They had some missteps. They missed a lot of opportunities in those first few years," said Scott Klug, a former Republican congressman who runs a public advocacy firm in Madison. "The question will be: Is the last 18 months enough to turn around and make up for the gap?"

Johnson's tenure is seen as a test case for what happens when someone truly new to politics assumes one of its most difficult jobs. His reelection, in no small part, will be a referendum on whether voters will tolerate his steep learning curve.

It was as simple as the issues Johnson would discuss once in office. Both privately and publicly, the senator talked about only Obamacare and the debt and deficit—issues that, while important to Republicans, represented only a few of the issues that confront a senator daily. Some Republican leaders reported hearing the same presentation on the subjects—delivered via PowerPoint—three times.

"When he got elected, it was, 'OK, I got elected because of the debt' … and he was so hyperfocused on that, frankly, he did have a little bit of blinders on because of the debt, and spending that led to the debt, that he missed some of the other things that he should have been paying attention to," said Mark Graul, a well-known Republican and former strategist in Wisconsin. "You can walk and chew gum at the same time."

Current and former Johnson staffers call the griping around Madison and Milwaukee the simple byproduct of unhappy lobbyists flummoxed by a lawmaker focused on the big picture instead of their individual needs. And they're eager to embrace the notion that Johnson remains a political outsider, disliked by GOP insiders but still popular with the grassroots voters who put him into office in the first place.

"If you are saying that Ron Johnson is different from the career politicians that are so common in Washington, you are exactly right," said Betsy Ankney, Johnson's campaign manager. "The people of Wisconsin chose Ron Johnson because he is an accountant and a manufacturer and not a politician at all. That's exactly what the voters wanted after 18 years of a partisan Washington insider like Senator Feingold."

But Republicans say Johnson's fixation on that pair of issues was part of a larger political blind spot that also manifested itself when the senator made controversial votes. Johnson has taken a few of them seemingly at odds with his state's centrist electorate, such as opposing the farm bill shortly after taking office in 2011. But conservatives say he's also shown little feel for how his votes will play within his own electoral base, like in 2013, when he flipped against his initial opposition to the Ryan-Murray budget deal.

"One of the challenges he's had to deal with is anticipating the political fallout of particular votes; in other words, developing a good political radar," said Matt Batzel, the Wisconsin-based national executive director of American Majority, a conservative grassroots group. "Just because another Republican congressman like Paul Ryan can communicate the rationale for a vote, doesn't mean others will be able to explain it well to the base or an interest group or another demographic who might be upset."

Batzel added: "He's certainly had some tough challenges he's trying to overcome. You don't get brownie points for having your heart in the right place."

Those who have watched Johnson closely draw a straight line from his early struggles as a senator to his time in the business world. In his previous job, Johnson gave orders and watched as employees carried them out quickly and efficiently.

But that's rarely how business works in the Senate, or in politics more generally. And the new senator's frustration was plain.

"In Ron's particular case, I think someone coming from the business world … to a place that is just innately slow is gonna be frustrating," said Don Kent, Johnson's first chief of staff who left in 2012. "And probably more frustrating given his background than others. He wasn't a statehouse member, he wasn't entrenched in politics like a lot of these guys are."

"There are a lot of people who run outsiders, but very few actually are in every sense," said one high-ranking Senate Republican operative. "I think that Johnson's exposure to the day in the life of a senator was very limited until he became a senator himself."

Kent disputes that Johnson's operation was substandard in its first two years, arguing that complaints from Republicans outside the office are commonplace with new lawmakers. He added that anybody frustrated with a senator who talked only about debt and Obamacare should have paid more attention to his campaign, during which he also talked only about those two issues.

But by last year, Republicans began to question whether Johnson would even seek a second term. He had raised less than a million dollars for his campaign account, and the inability thus far to satisfactorily erase the deficit or repeal Obamacare had left him with little to show for his efforts in office.

"People wondered," said Robin Vos, the GOP speaker of the State Assembly. "Only because he was operating … where he really was focused on getting the most done for Wisconsin that he could in his job in Washington, as opposed to spending time in Wisconsin telling people what he was doing."

Johnson, of course, is running for a second term. And Republicans who are sharply critical of his first years in office say he's gradually acquired a much steadier grip on his role. Officials who once struggled to get even quick meetings with the senator now say they are given ample face time.

A senator who did little to tack to the middle during his first four years in office has taken small steps to do so this year, voting to confirm Attorney General Loretta Lynch and aggressively fix Obamacare should some of the program's subsidies be ruled illegal by the Supreme Court in the King v. Burwell case. One Republican said that despite Johnson's well-known aversion to politics, nobody worked the room harder at a recent fundraiser at the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

And to the relief of many Republicans, the senator has finally ditched the PowerPoint presentations that irritated so many of them. "Him moving away from the PowerPoint presentation probably allows him to connect more with voters," said Kurt Bauer, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.

Many Republicans attribute the changes to new staff: Johnson's former state director, Tony Blando, took over as chief of staff after Kent left. The manager for his upcoming campaign, Ankney, has helped smooth over political problems back in Wisconsin for the last two years. Many other staffers have come and gone. "He recognized it and did make staff moves," said the senior GOP operative in the Senate. "He did correct the problem. Everybody says, well, there's been so much turnover. Well, you need turnover if you have a problem."