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In the midst of the 2016 election, the Republican Party left Ron Johnson’s Senate re-election candidacy in Wisconsin for dead.
But he clawed his way back and won anyway — running 3 points ahead of Donald Trump’s razor-thin margin over Hillary Clinton in the state.
This time, national party committees are preparing to go “all in” from the start to re-elect Johnson, who announced last week that he would seek a third term after months of deliberating. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, or NRSC, which works to elect GOP senators, will do “whatever it takes” to keep the seat, as a senior Senate Republican consultant put it. And Wisconsin GOP operatives say big-money donors are likewise willing to dig deep.
“Ron is going to get re-elected. The NRSC is all in for him,” said Curt Anderson, a top adviser to the NRSC’s chairman, Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, and a founder of OnMessage, one of the organization’s consulting firms for multiple races across the country.
Anderson said that when he worked for Johnson on his first campaign for the Senate in 2010, taking on incumbent Democrat Russ Feingold, “no one within 100 miles of D.C. gave us a chance of beating Senator Feingold.” He added, “They considered it a joke.”
It was the same in 2016, he continued, “and the naysayers are out in force again now.”
Video: Democrats 'target' Sen. Ron Johnson's seat in Wisconsin election
The naysayers this time are in the Democratic Party and part of the Washington chattering class, Republicans say. Johnson, one of Trump’s most ardent supporters in the Senate, has advanced right-wing conspiracy theories, spread false claims about the 2020 presidential election and promoted dubious information about Covid, including a suggestion last month that gargling with mouthwash could kill the coronavirus. (Responding to the comments on CNN, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who had been recruited by national Republicans to run for the Senate but ultimately decided to run for re-election instead, said: “When crazy comes knocking at the door, slam it shut.”)
YouTube suspended Johnson’s account last summer, citing a violation of its misinformation policy related to the coronavirus.
Still, Republicans say they’re convinced that they can’t take conventional political wisdom and apply it to Johnson. Other politicians who generated the headlines that Johnson has might be considered unelectable. But Johnson campaigned as a Washington outsider, an image he has continued to cultivate through regular statements opposing big government and defending personal freedoms. He has also taken hard-line positions against vaccination and mask mandates, issues that have divided Wisconsin along ideological lines.
“The Democrats just don’t get it,” Anderson said. “Being hated by the Washington insiders is a blessing. The voters love it.”
And then there’s just plain necessity. Protecting Johnson is crucial if Republicans want to gain control of the 50-50 Senate in the midterms.
“This is for all the marbles,” said Brandon Scholz, a Wisconsin Republican strategist. “That gives him a strong fundraising position. He can get on the phone and say, ‘You have to re-elect me if you want majority control.’”
The story was different in 2016. Johnson’s re-election campaign, a rematch against Feingold, seemed to be flailing. He hadn’t led in any poll the entire campaign, and by August the national party had all but pulled its funding from the race. That led other donors to take similar steps.
Johnson was still down by double digits heading into October. But a focus on local issues, such as delisting the gray wolf from the endangered species list, and a run of positive ads put him over the top. The national GOP did come back later, investing $2.5 million in the campaign in October. But two former Johnson campaign officials, who weren’t authorized to speak on record, said the national party backing came only after Johnson was on his way to overtaking Feingold.
Headed into the midterms, Johnson’s numbers are lagging again. The most recent Marquette Law School poll, from late October, showed Johnson at 39 percent approval, reflecting a downward trend since 2019, said Charles Franklin, who heads the poll. But given that Johnson was even further behind in 2016, Franklin said, there is much room for him to grow. Among independents, 34 percent said they didn’t have an opinion about whether Johnson should be re-elected.
“And that has to be an opportunity for Johnson, because those are folks who ultimately might be pretty important for tipping the balance,” Franklin said. “But because they don't pay attention to him normally, they could be introduced to him during the campaign. And that could obviously work to either his advantage or to the Democrats’ advantage. But that leads to a fair chunk of folks that are still going to learn something about Ron Johnson maybe for the first time.”
There’s also the Trump factor. Republicans say they fully expect the former president to rally the base for Johnson as the general election nears; Trump endorsed Johnson last year, before he had even announced that he would run again.
However, in August, a liberal activist posing as a conservative outside a GOP event caught Johnson on video saying there had been nothing skewed about the 2020 election results, even as Trump continues to push false claims of voter fraud.
Johnson’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Democrats are savoring the chance to end Johnson’s winning streak. Four Democrats have lined up to run: Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry and Tom Nelson, the Outagamie County executive.
While Republicans frame the four-person primary field as a liability, Democrats say it only reinforces perceptions that Johnson is vulnerable.
“I encourage Republicans to take victory for granted,” Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler said, adding that it’s “no surprise that the Republicans are desperate for money and trying to save his flailing campaign.”
Wikler said that in the 2018 governor’s race, 16 candidates were trying at one point to oust GOP Gov. Scott Walker. Walker was ultimately defeated.
“As previous Republican incumbents who went on to lose Wisconsin, like Scott Walker and Donald Trump, Ron Johnson has attracted a massive Democratic primary field of strong candidates who would be a dramatic improvement and has inspired people to volunteer for and donate to the Democratic Party of Wisconsin,” Wikler said.
Democrats say the landscape has changed for Johnson this cycle, arguing that he can no longer run as a change agent now that he has gone against his own vow to limit himself to twoterms. That gives Democrats an opening to frame him as a creature of Washington dysfunction.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, or DSCC, says it is as committed to defeating Johnson as its Republican counterpart is to re-electing him. The DSCC chose to run its first campaign ad of the 2022 cycle against Johnson, hitting him for his votes on tax breaks and for going back on his two-term promise.
“Ron Johnson’s self-serving agenda makes him the most vulnerable incumbent on the Senate map,” said Amanda Sherman Baity, a DSCC spokesperson. “The DSCC is already making early and historic investments to build on-the-ground infrastructure for the general election and ensure we defeat him in 2022.”
In Republicans’ view, Democrats routinely underestimate Johnson to their peril, and the sheer size of the multicandidate Democratic field — along with midterm headwinds during the Biden presidency — could make for a messy primary and general election in Wisconsin, a swing state.
The leading Democratic candidate, Barnes, just reported having raised about $1.2 million in the final quarter of last year, a slight increase over the $1.1 million he hauled in during the previous period after he announced. It was more than Johnson raised in that quarter.
Steven Law, the president of the Senate Leadership Fund, which is associated with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, promised more help for Johnson. He said the group came to Johnson’s aid in the final month of the 2016 campaign with $2.5 million.
“The prevailing attitude was that Feingold was too formidable — but Johnson proved everyone wrong,” Law said, adding that “we are 100 percent behind his re-election.”