As one of, if not the most vulnerable, senator seeking reelection this midterm cycle, Sen. Ron Johnson’s (R-WI) been staking out his policy positions on a number of issues rather publicly in recent weeks — after mid-August polling from Marquette Law School found that the incumbent was trailing behind his Democratic rival. Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes has a 7-percentage point lead over Johnson with 51 percent of the vote compared to his 44 percent.
And his latest remarks — clarifying where he stands on a same-sex marriage bill that could soon come before members of the upper chamber — include a few too many references to “religious liberty” to not be read as a scrambling effort to satisfy the religious right after initially appearing to be open to the bill.
During a Common Sense Citizens of Washington County meeting in Wisconsin last week, Johnson did some desperate clean up work, acknowledging that he had heard from countless constituents who were unhappy about his supposed support for codifying same-sex marriage into federal law. Earlier this summer, he released a statement, saying he had “no reason to oppose” a bill that might protect those rights federally. He was of course responding to now-passed House legislation brought by Democrats in response to Supreme Court Justice Thomas’ opinion overturning Roe. Johnson’s remarks helped fuel early speculation that a same-sex marriage bill might have enough Republican votes to overcome the filibuster in the Senate.
But in his comments last week, he admitted that he primarily put out that statement to get reporters “off my back” and that he only meant to clarify that he always supported civil unions. He also was firm about his opposition to the House-passed legislation, telling attendees that he “would not support it in its current state.”
The audio from that meeting, obtained by local media, is honestly rather stunning in tone. Johnson at one point goes after his Wisconsin colleague, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), the first openly LGBTQ person ever elected to the Senate, for “opening that wound,” suggesting that Baldwin and other Democrats are just making up the very legitimate threat to marriage equality outlined by Thomas.
“Because Justice Thomas is probably right that it was wrongly decided,” he said, referencing Obergefell v. Hodges. “But that’s a different issue as to whether or not the Supreme Court would overturn it. They never will. I do not see any scenario.”
In remarks to reporters today, Johnson doubled down and added in some religious red meat for the conservative base; voters he is clearly trying to appease as he mops up where he stands on the issue.
“I always support civil unions … never felt this bill is necessary,” Johnson told reporters today, now back in D.C. “This is just Democrats opening up a wound that doesn’t need to be opened up. And now that I’ve talked to people there are some very serious concerns on religious liberty.”
He also suggested that he has some sort of plan in the works with other conservative colleagues to propose a religious liberty amendment if the bill were to come to the Senate floor. As I noted yesterday, there have been some discussions among Senate leadership about potentially tucking the same-sex marriage bill — which has the support of at least three Senate Republicans — into a possible continuing resolution to keep the government funded through December. But it’s unclear if that will happen or if that sort of approach might backfire for Senate Democrats.
As a vulnerable Republican, Johnson’s positioning on the issue could serve as a bellwether for where the party suspects its voters fall on marriage equality. And it could influence other Republicans to burn down the bill’s chances, despite some GOP support for the measure in the Senate, and better-than-expected support in the House.
The Best Of TPM Today
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The latest from Matt Shuham: GOPers Are Blocking Michigan Abortion Ballot Measure Over Complaints About… Word Spacing
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What We Are Reading
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Michael Flynn: From government insider to holy warrior — Michelle R. Smith
“Libs of TikTok” and the Right’s Embrace of Anti-LGBTQ Violence — Melissa Gira Grant