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Freshman-Senior Senator Ron Johnson Makes his Mark on Capitol Hill

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Halfway through his first term in office, Republican Ron Johnson is now the senior senator from Wisconsin.

When Sen. Ron Johnson defeated longtime Democratic Senator Russ Feingold in 2010, little did he know he would soon become the senior senator from the state. Last year, the long-tenured Herb Kohl retired, and was succeeded by Democrat Tammy Baldwin.

Despite his lack of years in the Senate, Johnson has made a big impression on Capitol Hill. An article in this month’s Milwaukee Magazine, "The Rise of Ron Johnson," examines the important role Johnson plays in Congress working behind the scenes.

Writer Larry Sandler says Johnson has kept a relatively low public profile compared with his Senate cohorts, which makes his phenomenon as a rising star initially surprising. But Sandler says Johnson is active in fiscal policy debates, carving out a niche for himself in Congress.

“Clearly his business background is key to the way that he performs as a senator,” Sandler says. Johnson was previously the CEO of PACUR, LLC, a plastics manufacturing company.

Sandler says Johnson approaches being a senator from a "business-like standpoint," relying on data and numbers to inform his decision-making, as opposed to “many of the additional political calculations that you would expect from somebody in elected office.”

“The Republican Party is basically a pro-business party,” Sandler says. But many Republicans in office today “are professional politicians and don’t have the background that Johnson does, having been a CEO.” Sandler argues that this expertise has allowed Johnson to facilitate productive exchange between the House and the Senate, particularly on fiscal issues.

While fiscal know-how may be key to his success, Sandler says another factor in Johnson's rise is his ability to ameliorate tension among Republican leadership.

“The Republican Party is at a juncture where they are searching for their soul,” says Sandler, as party leadership debates between embracing hard-line conservatism and a more moderate ideological stance. Sandler says this political turmoil has provided “an opening for Johnson to be able to move between those factions and try to find some common ground.”

While Johnson has a consistently conservative voting record, Sandler is wary of typecasting him. “So much in politics today is based on sound bytes and easy characterizations,” Sandler says.

That being said, Sandler adds that Johnson's "crossover appeal shouldn’t be overstated." His supporters, both his political allies and his electorate, tend to skew conservative.

Rachel Bloom is a recent graduate in Human Biology from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. This past year, she served as a fellow at the Women's Policy Institute in Providence and interned in a clinical psychiatry lab investigating how early life stresses impact adult neural connectivity. After focusing her efforts in the sciences during her time in college, she is thrilled to explore her longstanding, yet relatively unexplored, interest in radio journalism with WUWM this summer.