In political campaigns, the incumbent lawmaker typically has higher name recognition than their challenger, but this year’s race for one of Wisconsin’s U.S. Senate seats is flipping the script.
According to the latest survey from Marquette University, 23 percent of registered voters in Wisconsin say they “don’t know enough” about incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson to have an opinion about him. Only 16 percent say the same about his challenger, former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold.
On a crisp fall Saturday, Dane County Farmers Market patrons with varying levels of political knowledge and interest added weight to those statistics.
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Madison resident Pam Drow laughed when asked to outline Johnson’s policy accomplishments or political positions.
“I know Ron Johnson is a grandpa because I saw the commercial where he changed the baby’s diaper,” Drow said.
Maggie and Patrick Pecher echoed Drow’s sentiment.
“Well, umm …” Patrick Pecher said.
“He’s old,” Maggie Pecher offered to fill her husband’s silence.
“I couldn’t say anything. I don’t know,” Maggie said. “I don’t know what he’s accomplished.”
Some market attendees could only name Johnson’s opponent.
“I believe the Senate (race) is Russ Feingold and … I don’t remember the other one,” said Kevin Cooley, a Madison resident.
Marquette University Law School pollster Charles Franklin pointed out Feingold’s name recognition could stem from his 18-year tenure in the U.S. Senate. Johnson unseated the former senator in 2010.
However, Franklin also pointed out Wisconsin’s other incumbent U.S. senator, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat who has only been in the Senate since 2012. She, too, has higher name recognition than Johnson.
“The relative comparison certainly has shown Sen. Johnson has typically been somewhere between 5 and 10 percent less well known than his co-senator, Tammy Baldwin,” Franklin said.
Farmers market attendees were happy to offer some insight into why they’re not very familiar with the incumbent senator.
“He hasn’t really been a high profile man in Washington,” said Mark Quinn of Madison. “Maybe that’s his gig, to just be a businessman, but you have to get things done, but he hasn’t really authored anything in the Senate.”
Al Drow compared Feingold to former Sen. William Proxmire, who represented Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate from 1957 to 1989 as a Democrat. Al said he believes Feingold has followed Proxmire’s lead of being a more hands-on lawmaker.
“He’s out there amongst the people, where Johnson is more behind the scenes,” said Al, husband of Pam Drow.
Tim Dale, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, agreed with that point.
“During his time, he’s spent more time in Washington,” Dale said of Johnson. “He did not spend a lot of time traveling around Wisconsin making himself known, making himself a public figure.”
“Different representatives have different models of leadership – that particular model does not lend itself to widespread voter recognition, particularly when he came from the private sector, running for office,” Dale said.
Asked this week why so many people don’t know him, Johnson disputed the idea that he hasn’t kept a presence in Wisconsin.
“I travel around the state tirelessly,” Johnson said. “I just did a quick calculation: 130,000 miles with me behind the wheel. That’s when I’ve got a full-time job during the week in Washington, DC. When I’m back here on the weekends, I travel the state tirelessly. I listen.”
When it comes to accomplishments, Johnson points to his chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, which has resulted in 83 bills being sent to the Senate floor. Twenty-three of those have become law.
Johnson has personally sponsored more than 150 bills during his time in office. Seven have become law, according to Library of Congress records.
Though quick to defend his connection with Wisconsinites and his record in office, Johnson’s initial response to his relatively low name recognition shows little concern.
“God bless Wisconsinites for not paying attention to politics,” he said. “I do not blame them at all.”
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