In Wisconsin, Biden Attacks a Far-Right Senator but Avoids Trump Talk

A week before Republicans visit Milwaukee for their first debate of the 2024 campaign, President Biden traveled to the city on Tuesday and attacked not former President Donald J. Trump or his Republican primary rivals, but Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.

Mr. Biden spent several minutes contrasting his political record with that of Mr. Johnson, a Republican who has long expressed skepticism about government investment in local manufacturing jobs.

“Ron Johnson, he believes outsourcing jobs is a great thing,” Mr. Biden said. “He doesn’t think American workers should manufacture products that require a lot of labor.”

Mr. Biden’s sustained attack on Mr. Johnson, who won re-election last year to a third term that won’t end until 2029, served as a stand-in for an attack on Mr. Trump. The indictment on Monday of Mr. Trump in Georgia, the fourth brought against the former president, loomed heavy over the effort by the White House and the Biden campaign to promote his economic agenda, which they have taken to calling “Bidenomics.”

The president has not addressed his predecessor’s legal travails, and he continued to avoid them on Tuesday. The White House, Mr. Biden’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee each declined to comment about the charges against Mr. Trump in Georgia.

“I think we’ve seen this movie before, actually,” Olivia Dalton, a White House spokeswoman, told reporters en route to Milwaukee. “We certainly can’t speak to what others are spending their time on.”

Indeed, Mr. Biden’s tour and speech at a factory that produces wind turbine generators and electric vehicle charging stations were aimed at highlighting legislation he signed last year investing in renewable energy manufacturing. He reminded the audience several times that Mr. Johnson voted against the bill, as he sought to elevate the senator as an avatar of far-right “MAGA” elements of the Republican Party.

“We have the best workers in the world,” Mr. Biden said. “It’s about time Ron Johnson’s friends understood that.”

Mr. Johnson and his spokeswoman did not immediately respond to requests for comment about Mr. Biden’s remarks.

In Wisconsin, where the parochial nature of the state’s politics has often insulated it from national happenings, Mr. Biden’s trip served as a kickoff to a campaign for what officials in both parties expect to be again among the most competitive battleground states in the country. Vice President Kamala Harris visited the state last week to promote broadband access at a factory in Kenosha County and attend a fund-raiser in Milwaukee.

Four of the last six presidential elections in Wisconsin have been decided by less than 23,000 votes. Since 2000, only Barack Obama has won the state by more.

The state is in perpetual campaign mode. Four months after a State Supreme Court race that became the most expensive judicial election in American history, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin has retained nearly all of its organizing staff in preparation for bruising campaigns for president and the Senate. Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat who helped introduce Mr. Biden at his event on Tuesday, is seeking a third term.

Even the most liberal Democrats in the state have rallied behind Mr. Biden, just as they did last year for Gov. Tony Evers, a white-haired pickleball enthusiast whose big applause line during his re-election victory speech last fall was “boring wins.”

“Folks are used to having to support older white men in this state,” said Francesca Hong, a Democratic state representative from Madison. “I’m going to keep saying Bidenomics as often as I can.”

Meanwhile, Wisconsin Republicans remain at odds about whether to keep fighting about the 2020 election.

A Trump-endorsed candidate for governor who questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 contest won last year’s primary but lost the general election to Mr. Evers. The Wisconsin Assembly’s Republican speaker spent 14 months on an investigation into the 2020 election — an endeavor that ended only after the former State Supreme Court justice responsible for leading it endorsed the primary opponent of the man who appointed him.

And now one of the leading Republican prospects to take on Senator Baldwin next year is David A. Clarke Jr., a former Milwaukee County sheriff who has become a regular figure on the far-right, pro-Trump speaking circuit.

Mr. Clarke on Tuesday said the Republican leadership in the State Legislature had become “disconnected” from the party’s base because it had failed to change voting laws in response to Mr. Biden’s 2020 victory in the state.

“I am connected to and keep my finger on the pulse of the base voter,” Mr. Clarke said. “The concern is that voting integrity issues have not been resolved by the G.O.P. Legislature since the 2020 election. In a clean, fair and honest election, they feel we can win.”

Mr. Clarke said he did not have a timeline to enter the race. “My name recognition and approval rating with G.O.P. voters in the state put time on my side,” he said.

Wisconsin’s politics are on the verge of a major shift, with the State Supreme Court gaining a liberal majority for the first time in 15 years. The court is poised this year to overturn the state’s 1849 ban on abortion as well as Republican-drawn maps that have given the G.O.P. near-supermajority control of the State Legislature.

Officials in both parties say the looming court decisions could juice turnout for their bases.

Republicans are already outraged at the prospect of having the court overturn the abortion law and invalidate the maps. The State Assembly speaker suggested last week that he might consider impeachment hearings for the newly elected justice if she did not recuse herself after calling the maps “rigged” during her campaign.

Democrats, on the other hand, see the possibility of having competitive down-ballot races for the first time since 2010 as a way to energize liberal voters who may not otherwise be enthused about voting for Mr. Biden, whose approval ratings in Wisconsin have sagged just as they have elsewhere in the country.

Reid J. Epstein covers campaigns and elections from Washington. Before joining The Times in 2019, he worked at The Wall Street Journal, Politico, Newsday and The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. More about Reid J. Epstein

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