A mea­sure of the coun­try’s me­tab­o­lism

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION - Ge­orge Will Colum­nist Ge­orge Will’s email ad­dress is georgewill@wash­post.com.

In 49 states, when you or­der break­fast in a restau­rant you might be asked if you would like pan­cakes or an omelet. In Wis­con­sin, you are asked if you would like pan­cakes with your omelet. Ron Johnson would, thank you. This Repub­li­can U.S. se­na­tor, who is burn­ing prodi­gious amounts of calo­ries cam­paign­ing for a sec­ond and fi­nal term, re­ally does rep­re­sent the hearty eaters who were fu­el­ing up at a Perkins restau­rant here on a re­cent Sun­day morn­ing.

In 2010, Johnson left his plas­tics man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pany that made him wealthy enough to try, against his pref­er­ence for the pri­vate sec­tor and against his wife’s adamant dis­ap­proval, to be­come the only man­u­fac­turer in the Se­nate. He surfed into that cham­ber on the Repub­li­can wave raised by two things that an­noyed Johnson enough to pro­pel him into pol­i­tics — the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s stim­u­lus that did not stim­u­late, and Oba­macare, which six years later is in in­ten­sive care.

Johnson de­feated a three­term in­cum­bent, Russ Fein­gold, who this year is again Johnson’s op­po­nent. Be­ing de­voted en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, Democrats be­lieve in re­cy­cling even their can­di­dates: In In­di­ana, too, a for­mer se­na­tor, Evan Bayh, is in a tight race try­ing to re­turn to Washington.

In a sea­son sup­pos­edly in­im­i­cal to in­sid­ers, Fein­gold, 63, is more of this de­tested breed than is Johnson. Fein­gold first won elec­tive of­fice at age 29 and his in­vol­un­tary six-year so­journ in the pri­vate sec­tor has been an aber­ra­tion he is ea­ger to end. Johnson, 61, said when seek­ing his first term that he would never seek a third.

Johnson says he has trav­eled 130,000 miles — “that’s with me be­hind the wheel” — to ask au­di­ences: How many of you think the gov­ern­ment is ef­fi­cient and ef­fec­tive? When no hands are raised, he asks: Why, then, would you want it en­larged?

Johnson was con­sid­ered so vul­ner­a­ble this year that the na­tional party es­sen­tially wrote him off — in­deed, it vir­tu­ally an­nounced as much by its par­si­mo­nious sup­port. Ten months ago he trailed Fein­gold by dou­ble dig­its. He is at­tempt­ing to be­come the first Wis­con­sin Repub­li­can since 1980 to win a Se­nate elec­tion in a pres­i­den­tial year. In that year, Ron­ald Rea­gan’s coat­tails pulled 16 fresh­men Repub­li­cans into the Se­nate.

This year, Johnson faces head­winds be­yond the fact that the un­hinged spec­ta­cle at the top of the Repub­li­can ticket lost the Wis­con­sin pri­mary to Ted Cruz by 13 points. Wis­con­sin last voted for a Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date in 1984 and is much more con­ge­nial to Repub­li­cans in non-pres­i­den­tial years, when turnout is lower. In 2010, the to­tal vote for Se­nate can­di­dates was 2,171,331. In the pres­i­den­tial year 2012, when Demo­crat Tammy Bald­win de­feated for­mer Gov. Tommy Thomp­son for the state’s other Se­nate seat, the to­tal vote surged to 3,009,411.

Nev­er­the­less, al­though Hi­lary Clin­ton is ex­pected to win Wis­con­sin hand­ily, Johnson still could be the un­likely sav­ior of Repub­li­cans’ Se­nate con­trol: Two re­cent pub­lic polls show Johnson be­hind by less than the polls’ mar­gins of er­ror. This is partly be­cause, in a year of un­re­lieved po­lit­i­cal ug­li­ness, he has done some­thing ec­cen­tric: He has run tele­vi­sion ads that make peo­ple smile rather than wince. One con­cerns his sup­port for a faith-based pro­gram teach­ing un­em­ployed in­ner-city res­i­dents the modal­i­ties of job seek­ing (in­ter­views, etc.); the other high­lights Johnson help­ing a Wis­con­sin cou­ple bring their adopted child home from Congo.

In 22 of the 36 elec­tion cy­cles — pres­i­den­tial and off-year — in the 70 years since World War II, vot­ers have pro­duced di­vided gov­ern­ment, giv­ing at least one house of Congress to the party not hold­ing the pres­i­dency. This whole­some Amer­i­can instinct for checks and bal­ances is par­tic­u­larly per­ti­nent now be­cause Clin­ton will take of­fice as an un­prece­dent­edly un­pop­u­lar new pres­i­dent.

For con­ser­va­tives, this au­tumn has been about si­mul­ta­ne­ously stop­ping Trump and pre­serv­ing Repub­li­cans’ Se­nate con­trol to stymie Clin­ton. Johnson will re­turn ei­ther to the Se­nate and the in­vig­o­rat­ing busi­ness of pre­vent­ing pro­gres­sives’ mis­chief, or to pri­vate life. Come what may, he says, “I’ll be the calmest guy on elec­tion night.”

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