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Democrats take aim at Ron Johnson’s Jan. 6 vulnerability

Sen. Ron Johnson's detractors have suddenly taken a keen interest in the Wisconsin Republican’s Jan. 6 record — and what a record it is.

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As recently as last week, Politico noted that the Jan. 6 attack has been “mostly absent” from the midterm elections, with neither party focusing on the insurrectionist violence as part of their campaign pitches. And while the report was accurate, there’s fresh evidence that the pro-Trump riot isn’t completely irrelevant in the 2022 cycle.

As we discussed yesterday, for example, Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah faced serious pushback about his Jan. 6 record during his Monday night debate against independent Evan McMullin.

In Wisconsin, meanwhile, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson’s Jan. 6 record has long been highly problematic, and with three weeks remaining before Election Day, it’s suddenly an area of intense focus for the incumbent senator’s opponents.

This week, VoteVets, a progressive veterans organization, launched a new ad tying the GOP senator to the Jan. 6 rioters, and as NBC News reported, other Johnson detractors have begun emphasizing the same line.

Democrats are ramping up their attacks on Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin over his remarks downplaying the Jan. 6 riot with a new TV ad in the homestretch of the pivotal Senate race.

The 30-second ad, first shared with NBC News, features retired police Capt. George Silverwood telling voters, “I’ll never forget January 6th, watching my fellow law enforcement officers defending the Capitol, defending our freedoms, defending democracy. And then five officers died. But Ron Johnson is making excuses for rioters who tried to overthrow our government, even calling them ‘peaceful protests.’”

The ad, which will begin airing in the Badger State today, is paid for by the Senate Majority PAC, which is closely aligned with Senate Democratic leaders, as well as End Citizens United, another political action committee.

While Johnson has faced plenty of critical ads this year, NBC News’ report added that this is the first instance this year in which Democrats have taken aim at the Republican incumbent’s Jan. 6 record.

And what a record it is.

Circling back to our earlier coverage, it was in May 2021 when the senator argued that the violent riot was a largely “peaceful protest,” which was obviously absurd. Two months earlier, he insisted there “was no violence” on the north side of the Capitol during the Jan. 6 attack — a claim that was quickly discredited.

Around the same time, the senator praised the rioters’ patriotism and boasted that he was never concerned for his safety on Jan. 6 — though he added he would’ve felt differently if the mob was made up of Black Lives Matter protesters.

That came on the heels of Johnson appearing at a Senate hearing, reading an item from a right-wing blog, and peddling the ridiculous idea that the pro-Trump forces that launched the attack on the Capitol secretly included “fake Trump protesters.” He pushed related conspiracy theories about the FBI and Jan. 6.

This year, the Republican’s record managed to get a little worse. The public learned over the summer about Johnson’s role in trying to deliver fake elector materials to then-Vice President Mike Pence on Jan. 6. The senator stumbled badly when trying to explain what happened — many of us won’t soon forget how embarrassing it was to see him pretend to be on the phone when pressed for answers — and the mess raised questions anew about the merits of his congressional service.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s editorial board told readers in June: “Johnson has proven by his past actions that he isn’t fit to be a U.S. senator. This latest episode only makes that more clear.”

In the weeks and months that followed, the GOP incumbent has struggled to get his facts straight. In August, for example, Johnson told WISN in Milwaukee that he would not cooperate with the Jan. 6 investigation. “I had, like, virtually no involvement,” he said. “Literally, my involvement lasted seconds.”

Two weeks ago, as NBC News reported, the senator’s story changed a little more, acknowledging that he exchanged text messages with one of Donald Trump’s attorneys before and after Johnson’s staff tried to deliver a package Pence on Jan. 6.

“The entire episode lasted about an hour,” Johnson added.

It was against this backdrop that the senator told the Rotary Club of Milwaukee earlier that day, “To call what happened on Jan. 6 an ‘armed insurrection,’ I just think it’s inaccurate. I’m sorry — that’s not what an armed insurrection would look like.” Johnson argued that few weapons were confiscated but that protesters “did teach us how you can use a flag pole.”

This was factually wrong, and the “flag pole” comment was bizarre given the violent ways that insurrectionists used flag poles and related materials to attack law enforcement officials.

Will Wisconsin voters care about Johnson’s ugly record on such an important issue? The answer will be clear in 20 days.