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Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson Faces Backlash For Questioning Election Results

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Why isn't Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson telling the truth? Johnson is a vocal supporter of former President Trump. He has spread false claims of voter fraud and encouraged falsehoods about the U.S. Capitol attack. Some of his constituents are not happy.

Here's Chuck Quirmbach of member station WUWM in Milwaukee.

CHUCK QUIRMBACH, BYLINE: Ron Johnson went from millionaire business owner to U.S. senator in 2010 as part of a Republican electoral wave in Wisconsin. For years, he focused on cutting government spending. But last year, he questioned the reach of the pandemic as he worked to help get Donald Trump reelected. After Trump lost, Johnson called on Congress to investigate allegations of voter fraud. That led, on January 3, to NBC's "Meet The Press" host Chuck Todd leveling this charge at the senator.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

CHUCK TODD: So essentially, you're the arsonist here.

QUIRMBACH: Johnson rejected that label, instead blaming the media for what he claimed is a bias against Trump. It was only three days later that thousands of Trump supporters breached the Capitol. Weeks later, Johnson raised eyebrows again, telling WISN radio in Milwaukee that the January 6 attack was misportrayed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON JOHNSON: The fact of the matter is, this didn't seem as - like an armed insurrection to me. I mean, armed - when you think - hear armed, don't you think of firearms?

QUIRMBACH: The Poynter Institute's PolitiFact called Johnson's claim ridiculous, revisionist history. Wisconsin Democrats seized on his comments and started running this TV ad.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR: Johnson should resign. Ron Johnson - unfit to serve.

QUIRMBACH: Instead, Johnson doubled down. During a Senate hearing, he read into the record an essay about the insurrection written by a conservative conspiracy theorist.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: He describes four different types of people - plainclothes militants, agents provocateurs, fake Trump protesters and then disciplined uniformed column of attackers.

QUIRMBACH: Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, were incredulous.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NANCY PELOSI: Ron Johnson seems to be taking the lead on what the scope would be of how we look at protecting our country from domestic terrorism.

QUIRMBACH: When reached for comment, Senator Johnson dismissed his critics.

JOHNSON: What I found astonishing is how many words people have put into my mouth that I - you know, things I've never said, different motives they're trying to attribute to me that simply aren't true. All I have been trying to uncover in all my investigations, just determine the truth.

QUIRMBACH: But some moderate Wisconsin voters aren't buying that explanation. Rita Biernat lives in a Milwaukee suburb and says the senator's views are now too extreme.

RITA BIERNAT: I have voted for Republicans. So it's - I'm not against Republicans, nor am I against my family that's Republican. But he's out of the ballgame.

QUIRMBACH: In 2016, Johnson pledged not to run for election after this term, but voter Peter Gilbert hopes Johnson changes his mind.

PETER GILBERT: He's one of the few senators in the whole Senate that takes a stand.

QUIRMBACH: In another congressional hearing, Johnson yet again questioned the portrayal of the January 6 insurrection. He says he feels under no pressure to decide any time soon whether to keep his pledge not to run for re-election.

For NPR News, I'm Chuck Quirmbach in Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "MANSIONS OF MILLIONS OF YEARS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.