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On Covid conspiracy theories, Ron Johnson can't seem to help himself

Running for re-election in a highly competitive state, Ron Johnson has incentive to become more mainstream. He's sticking to weird Covid theories anyway.

Sen. Ron Johnson has long described himself as an advocate for term limits. It's why the Wisconsin Republican made a public commitment to serve no more than two terms.

Johnson, like so many term-limit proponents, had a miraculous change of heart as the end of his second term neared.

What was less clear, however, was what kind of re-election pitch the GOP incumbent would bring to voters while seeking a third term. After all, Johnson has spent recent years moving further and further into the far-right fringe, positioning himself as the Republican Party's "foremost amplifier of conspiracy theories and disinformation."

If the Wisconsinite were planning to leave Capitol Hill and pursue a career in conservative media, these antics would be rational. But if Johnson has decided to ask voters in one of the nation's most competitive battlegrounds for another Senate term, perhaps it'd be wise to move closer to the American mainstream on key issues?

Evidently, he doesn't quite see it that way. HuffPost noted last night:

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) has found a new conspiracy theory to peddle about the effective and safe COVID-19 vaccines: that somehow, uncovered by the media, and silenced by government health officials, hordes of athletes are dropping dead on the field after getting the jab.

Yes, the Republican senator, who actually led the Senate committee responsible for domestic security policy for six long years, argued publicly that professional athletes are literally dropping dead after receiving Covid-19 vaccines.

"The Faucis of the world are just blowing it all off, the Biden administration [says] nothing to see here," Johnson said. "Of course we've heard story after story, I mean, all these athletes dropping dead on the field. But we are supposed to ignore that."

So, a few things.

First, as HuffPost's report made clear, no one is ignoring these incidents because they're not real: "This claim, which has been spread online through misleading videos, has been repeatedly debunked."

Second, we're getting a closer look at the senator's political strategy in advance of a difficult re-election bid. Johnson appears to have made a calculation that generating far-right excitement is the key to victory.

The approach is not without risks. A Marquette Law School Poll survey of Wisconsin voters two months ago found Johnson's favorability rating down to just 36 percent. The same results found only 38 percent of the state's voters intend to support his bid for a third term.

It's against this backdrop that the senator is still peddling nonsense about the pandemic.

And finally, it's apparently time to circle back to our earlier coverage and add this latest installment to Johnson's bizarre greatest-hits package. It was earlier this month, for example, when the GOP lawmaker made the case against vaccines by asking, "Why do we think that we can create something better than God in terms of combating disease?"

A week earlier Johnson tried to argue that breakthrough infections prove there's no "point" to getting vaccinated. A few weeks before that, the Republican suggested that people should use mouthwash as a coronavirus treatment.

Regrettably, he's been like this from the outset. In mid-March 2020, as the scope of the coronavirus crisis was just coming into view, the Wisconsin Republican went further than most in downplaying the importance of mitigation efforts. As part of his case, the senator told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "[W]e don't shut down our economy because tens of thousands of people die on the highways. It's a risk we accept so we can move about." This was a tragically bad argument, for reasons he didn't seem to fully grasp.

A couple of months later, Johnson was seen on the Senate floor without any facial covering. "I wear a mask when I go into grocery stores, that type of thing," the GOP senator said. "I think around here, we probably won't have to." This, too, was wrong.

In July 2020, Johnson argued that the United States "overreacted" in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which was unfortunate at the time, and which is a perspective that looks much worse now.

In late 2020, Johnson sunk lower, holding multiple Senate hearings to promote pseudo-science and conspiracy theories. Dr. Ashish Jha, dean at Brown University School of Public Health, appeared as a witness at one of the Senate hearings and was amazed by the Wisconsin senator's apparent suspicion that there's a "coordinated effort by America's doctors" to deny patients hydroxychloroquine because of a corrupt scheme involving physicians and the pharmaceutical industry.

In 2021, as vaccines and boosters became available to the public at large, Johnson — who still occasionally claims not to be an opponent of vaccines — has gone to great lengths to discourage Americans from doing the smart thing, desperately trying to undermine public confidence in the vaccines.

Stepping back, it's a problem that a prominent public official keeps pushing false information about public health during a deadly pandemic. But the bigger problem is that many Americans won't necessarily realize that Johnson has no idea what he's talking about.