How Talk Radio Unites Ron Johnson and His Wisconsin Voters


MILWAUKEE — Other senators spend countless hours promoting their political messages and personal brands on cable news and social media.

Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin simply calls up a receptive talk radio host — and then another, and then another.

Since the beginning of this year, Mr. Johnson has made at least 325 appearances on talk radio shows, including 186 hits in Wisconsin. In the Senate, he has spent about four and a half hours speaking in committees and floor speeches. On the radio, listening to all of his appearances would take more than four full days.

It is a staggering investment of time by a United States senator. And it is paying off.

Long thought to be this year’s most endangered Republican in the chamber because of his low approval ratings, Mr. Johnson has opened up a lead in the polls over his Democratic challenger, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes. Democrats would dearly love for Mr. Barnes to win, both because Senate control could hang on the race and because Mr. Johnson, one of the nation’s leading purveyors of misinformation, has been the bane of Wisconsin liberals’ existence for a dozen years.

But they are finding that it’s not so easy to oust Mr. Johnson, an analog creature in the modern digital world, whose political resilience stems in great part from an omnipresence on the radio airwaves that has made him nearly as much a fixture of Wisconsin as cheese curds, beer and the Green Bay Packers.

Mr. Johnson, 67, has refined an old-school playbook of communicating with Republican base voters who listen to hours of conservative talk radio a week, a function of the medium’s unique power in Wisconsin’s media environment and of his own political upbringing as a figure endorsed and promoted by the state’s leading right-wing talkers.

The time on the radio serves as a direct line to Mr. Johnson’s political base. Hosts who share his worldview rarely challenge him on conservative talking points about elections, public health or his past statements. Listening on the other end is a large, devoted audience that has little trust in the state’s shrinking newspapers and television stations.

“Talk radio is crucial to the conservative movement, because we don’t have the mainstream media on our side,” Mr. Johnson said in a recent interview. “Were it not for talk radio, I don’t think conservatism would have a chance. We’d be overwhelmed by the liberal media.”

That radio-bred reality is quick to spread through Republican politics here. Republican elected officials on the receiving end of anger on talk radio will hear about it quickly — and most soon find a way back into the hosts’ good graces.

“You can pick any issue you want, but whatever the hot topic on talk radio is, you’ll hear it come up,” said Mayor Rohn Bishop of Waupun, Wis., who until last year was the chairman of the Republican Party in Fond du Lac County.

Listening to Mr. Johnson on Wisconsin’s radio airwaves can serve as a tour into a universe in which the state’s Democrats are constantly scheming to steal elections; the F.B.I. is out to get the senator; and Mr. Barnes, his Democratic opponent, is an anti-American zealot who “thinks our national parks are racist” — an accusation Mr. Johnson made more than a dozen times in September alone.

Other conspiracy theories and misinformation abound. Since the beginning of September, he has claimed the F.B.I. tried to rig the 2016 election for Hillary Clinton, then “not only corrupted the 2020 election, they’re corrupting the 2022 election.” He has promoted hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for Covid and has suggested that Democrats planned the Capitol riot.

In the interview, Mr. Johnson said he made no apologies for any of his statements that have departed from the truth.

“Everything I’ve been saying is proven out to be true,” he said. “There’s not one thing that I’ve said about Covid that wasn’t true, including gargling.”

The senator was referring to a comment he made at a town-hall meeting in December suggesting that a “standard gargle, mouthwash, has been proven to kill the coronavirus.” Afterward, he defended his stance on a tour of local radio shows. In the recent interview with The New York Times, Mr. Johnson offered to provide evidence that he was right. So far, he has not done so.

How Times reporters cover politics. We rely on our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times staff members may vote, they are not allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money to, or raising money for, any political candidate or election cause.

Wisconsin Democrats long ago decided not to make Mr. Johnson’s false assertions the focus of their campaign to unseat him. In part, that’s because he has been making them for so long that they have become part of the firmament of the state’s politics.

“In a rural state, people are listening to this,” said Representative Mark Pocan, a Democrat from Madison who has spent years sparring with Mr. Johnson. “Those no longer become viewpoints. They become facts and they become repeated facts and they’re part of allegedly what’s reality here.”

The shows have attracted a legion of loyal listeners across Wisconsin, though the public Nielsen radio station ratings do not report how many people are tuned in at specific times. Mr. Johnson appears on shows throughout the state, from the 50,000-watt station in Milwaukee’s 1.5-million listener market to stations with tiny signals in Wausau and programs syndicated on public radio stations across Wisconsin.

Ryan Seaman, 31, who works in construction, said he was a frequent caller to conservative talk radio shows in Milwaukee, where he lives.

“They try to offer perspective on both sides without really giving too much of their input,” Mr. Seaman said. “It’s not like they’re trying to force something down on you. That’s how I think the news should be. It should be fair, but accurate about what’s going on.”

Shawn Kelly, a Republican retiree from Fond du Lac who in 2013 was appointed as his county’s register of deeds by Gov. Scott Walker, said what he heard on local talk radio was often “the exact opposite” from what he saw on television or read in the newspapers.

“I don’t think there is a middle-of-the-road news organization around here,” Mr. Kelly said.

Mr. Johnson’s relationship with Wisconsin’s conservative talk radio hosts dates to the dawn of his political career.

In early 2010, when he was a plastics executive unknown in Wisconsin politics, he gave a speech at a Tea Party rally. An attendee soon helped introduce him to Charlie Sykes, then the most powerful conservative talk radio host in the state.

“I said, ‘Well, how would you describe yourself?’” Mr. Sykes said. “Either that day or the next day, he sent me a picture of his bedside table, which was stacked up with Wall Street Journals. His point was, ‘I’m a Wall Street Journal editorial page conservative.’”

Mr. Sykes became the single biggest promoter of Mr. Johnson’s 2010 campaign for Senate. He read parts of Mr. Johnson’s speech during his show the next week, and Mr. Johnson sent a recording in which Mr. Sykes praised him to the chairs of the Republican Party in each of the state’s 72 counties.

Not long after, Mr. Johnson won the endorsement of the Republican Party of Wisconsin at its annual convention — a coup for someone with just a few weeks of political experience.

Mr. Sykes never stopped promoting Mr. Johnson’s candidacy, and Republican voters followed. After Mr. Johnson won and took office, the two had a standing off-air call for 40 minutes each week in which the senator sought feedback on how he was doing and the mood of his political base.

In a 2011 interview with Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Johnson said Mr. Sykes’s promotion was “the reason I’m a U.S. senator.”

Conservative talk radio hosts in Wisconsin often move as a bloc, and Mr. Johnson has moved with them. In the 2016 presidential primary, all of the state’s major radio hosts — and all but one of the Republicans in the State Legislature — opposed Donald J. Trump’s candidacy.

But once Mr. Trump was the nominee, the Republican base quickly rallied behind him, and so did Mr. Johnson. The radio show hosts who didn’t would soon learn the consequences. Mr. Sykes, who once lectured Mr. Trump on air about civility, announced before Mr. Trump won the general election that he was leaving his show.

In Green Bay, Jerry Bader spoke with Mr. Johnson a few times a month on a radio show he hosted for 14 years that, he said, was “about everything from a conservative worldview.”

In a recent interview, Mr. Bader said he couldn’t recall ever disagreeing with Mr. Johnson on the air — even though Mr. Bader served as the M.C. at a rally for Senator Ted Cruz during the 2016 primary and steadfastly opposed Mr. Trump even after the general election.

Mr. Bader said his ratings dipped after Mr. Trump took office. Callers to the show were “very vehement” in their anger at him. When he was eventually fired in 2018, he said, the station’s management told him it was because he wouldn’t support Mr. Trump. A number of the Republican officials who had been regulars on his show called to offer condolences, but Mr. Bader said he never heard again from Mr. Johnson.


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