Dick Leinenkugel had the name. Terrence Wall had the head start. But in the end, Ron Johnson had the votes.
In a surprise move Sunday, the Republican Party of Wisconsin endorsed Johnson’s bid for the U.S. Senate, picking him over Leinenkugel, the former state commerce secretary, and Wall, a Madison-area developer who had courted delegates for months.
Johnson, 55, entered the race less than one week before the state convention in Milwaukee. His victory was shocking. To everyone. Including Johnson.
“I had done a fair amount of groundwork and I worked the convention pretty hard,” he said Tuesday. “But still, it was humbling.”
An Oshkosh businessman with no political experience, Johnson has often been mentioned as a Tea Party candidate. And his resume does seem to appeal to those looking for outsider candidates. But while he welcomes their support, Johnson said he considers himself a Republican who simply believes in holding the line on spending.
“Unlike anytime in my life, people are feeling the collective burden of our debt,” he said. “The politicians have created this problem and they are really doing nothing to fix it.”
Some see Johnson’s endorsement as another sign of the party’s shift toward pocketbook issues and away from the social issues that defined Republicans for years.
Mordecai Lee, a UW-Milwaukee professor of governmental affairs, said the situation reminds him of the Goldwater phenomenon.
Barry Goldwater was the Republican nominee for president in 1964. Dubbed “Mr. Conservative,” he was considered ideologically pure and is still a hero to a certain branch of the party.
“To a certain extent, Johnson seems to be an indication that the enthusiasm of the Tea Party has swept the Republican ranks,” Lee said. “A pure conservative, an ideologically consistent conservative, taking over the party through the zeal of grass roots activists.”
Lee said the delegate season was complicated this year with the potential candidacy of Tommy Thompson. The other candidates waited to make sure the former governor stayed out of the race.
Johnson delayed his campaigning so long that he estimates he garnered as many as half of his endorsement votes during the convention.
Of course, the endorsement was made easier Sunday when Leinenkugel unexpectedly pulled out of the race and backed him.
In an interview with WisPolitics.com, the former commerce secretary said he could not commit to running a long, hard campaign and felt Johnson was the best choice to face Democratic U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold in November.
It’s a position in which Johnson never pictured himself. The Minnesota native has lived for more than 30 years in Oshkosh, where he runs a plastics company that employs about 120 people.
For most of his adult life, he was content to run his business and serve on the board of the Unified Catholic Schools of Oshkosh.
“He was just a regular guy who seemed to care about people and who seemed happy to do his work pretty much anonymously,” said Tony Blando, who served with Johnson on the school board. “I had a hard time believing it when he said he was going to run.”
Johnson said he was spurred into action after the passage of President Barack Obama’s health care legislation. He said the program goes against his free market beliefs and will ultimately be too costly.
Now he has the backing of the party as he faces off against Wall and Watertown businessman Dave Westlake for the nomination.
“It doesn’t matter if you are in the race for two years or two months,” said Reince Priebus, Republican Party chairman. “This proves that it’s about the right message and the right candidate.”
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