WISCONSIN — Sen. Ron Johnson is trying to cut a different image as he campaigns for re-election as one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents in Washington.

Appearing Sunday at Liberty Fest, a Republican gathering in Eau Claire, Wis., Johnson was introduced by a former inmate who was helped by the Joseph Project, a faith-based jobs program for inner-city Milwaukee residents that he co-founded in 2015.

“You can’t be a great leader unless you genuinely care about everyone,” the former inmate said before bringing him out on stage.

During his speech, Johnson appealed to voters’ concerns about the border, crime and the economy — major Republican themes this campaign season. He specifically blamed the administration of Gov. Tony Evers and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, Johnson’s Democratic opponent for Senate, for the elevated crime rate in the state.

As the crowd jeered at these supposed failures, Johnson framed the opposing party as the negative one.

“The left, they are the angry ones,” Johnson said. “They are the ones dividing us. We want to unify and heal this nation.”

Johnson ended with a note of unity.

(Spectrum News 1/Taurean Small)

“It’s up to us to be the adults, to unify and heal this nation,” Johnson said. “You have to talk to every friend, every family member, every neighbor. Don’t count anybody out.”

Then, addressing a hall filled with Republicans, many still embracing former president Donald Trump’s false claims that current president Joe Biden lost the 2020 election, Johnson urged his supporters to reach across party lines

“Whether they’re Democrat, Independent or Republican — if they love this country, they’re concerned about its future — ask them to join us,” Johnson said.

In an interview with Spectrum News, Johnson said he believes his approach is resonating.

“There are a number of Democrats that are going to support me, that are going to vote for me,” Johnson said. “They’ve told me that, you know what, they can’t put out a yard sign on their lawn, because they’re afraid they’re going to be canceled. Isn’t that sad? Democrats can’t declare publicly they’ll vote for me because they fear their side. That’s the unfortunate reality of politics today.”

Democrats said that this Ron Johnson is unrecognizable.

During the Trump administration, Johnson was often accused of using his leadership position in the majority party for partisan purposes.

When he served as chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Johnson repeatedly sparred with his Democratic colleagues over allegations that he spread Russian disinformation and concerns that his investigations targeted Trump’s political rivals. 

“This committee needs to return back to its bipartisan base,” Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) yelled at Johnson during a hearing two years ago. “This is terrible what you’re doing to this committee.”

More recently, after Democrats took control of the Senate, Johnson talked up unproven COVID-19 treatments, convened hearings that spotlighted people who claimed they were injured by COVID-19 vaccinations and, Democrats charged, tried to downplay the severity of the attack on Congress on Jan. 6 last year.

“He may not have noticed that an insurrection happened because he called those people patriots,” Barnes said last week, during a debate with Johnson.

Johnson told Spectrum News he believes Democrats are distorting what happened on Jan. 6, adding that it’s wrong to call it an armed insurrection, because few firearms were confiscated, although rioters attacked officers with makeshift weapons like flagpoles, planks, crutches and fire extinguishers.

“You have this narrative that there were thousands of armed insurrectionists,” Johnson said. “There weren’t. That’s a false narrative being put forward by the Left to basically paint half of America as now — as President Biden the divider-in-chief has said — semi-fascists or potential domestic terrorists.”

In one measure of bipartisanship — co-sponsoring legislation introduced by members of the opposing party — Johnson was in the middle of the pack in 2019. It was the last year Republicans were in the majority. He ranked 53rd in bipartisanship, according to the nonprofit Lugar Center’s Bipartisan Index.

In 2021, when Democrats regained the majority, Johnson’s ranking fell to 94th out of the 98 senators analyzed.

By comparison, Wisconsin’s Democratic senator, Tammy Baldwin, ranked 39th in 2019 when Democrats were in the minority, and 34th last year when Democrats regained the majority.

Although making appeals to the political center, Johnson has not forgotten his political base. He has flagged issues that are animating the right.

Johnson said voters are “[concerned] we’re losing this country — the ‘Radical Left’ agenda that has been implemented by the Biden administration, I mean what’s going on in our schools, things like Critical Race Theory, the 1619 Project, all the transgender indoctrination of our children — people are concerned about that.”

“Our schools are at stake. Our healthcare needs to be fixed and I believe our candidates that we had here today will do that,” said Paul Schewel, a first responder in Curtis, Wis., after listening to Johnson and other Republicans speak at Liberty Fest.

(Spectrum News 1/Taurean Small)

Heading into the final  weeks of the campaign, Johnson’s political position has improved. In August, a Marquette Law School Poll had Barnes leading by 7 points. But this month, Johnson took a slight lead, with 52% of respondents supporting Johnson and 46% backing Barnes.

“That’s very much still in tossup territory but it also does show that there has been some movement towards Johnson since the primary,” Charles Franklin, the poll’s director, said ahead of the October results. “With a very close race, a lot [as always] can hinge on turnout. And that’s where motivating the party faithful, and especially motivating those folks who are not necessarily partisan but usually turn out in Wisconsin elections, getting them on your side is a big deal, too.”

“I think what I believe are universal values. What I support, things like reducing government spending would help tame inflation, being energy independent would bring down gasoline prices, [and] being tough on crime,” Johnson said. “I think a lot of Wisconsinites support the positions that I hold — whether it’s right, left or middle — it’s the right thing to do. These policies work.”