At a time when Democrats and Republicans can agree on little, they find themselves in rare consensus in Wisconsin: Seemingly everyone there wants Sen. Ron Johnson (R) to run for a third term.
Democrats view him as vulnerable, pointing to provocative comments on the coronavirus, 2020 election, racial justice protests and more, and are eager for him to take another crack at the Senate. Republicans see in Johnson a battle-tested incumbent who has twice proven his mettle in a key swing state.
Should Johnson run, whichever side is right about him would have a leg up in Wisconsin’s hyper competitive Senate race, where a victory could be key to controlling the entire upper chamber, which is currently split 50-50.
“I think you will find almost every Republican in Wisconsin and outside of Wisconsin wanting Ron Johnson to run because of what’s at stake, and that’s the majority of the Senate for Republicans,” said Brandon Scholz, a GOP operative in the state. “If he doesn’t run, that makes it more difficult.”
“Ron Johnson is what you get when QAnon and the Tea Party have a baby. And I hope that he does run. His candidacy makes the race far more competitive for Democrats,” Wisconsin Democratic consultant Ben Nuckels added. “If Republicans want to see him run, I’ll agree with them on that.”
Johnson first made a name for himself in 2010 when he ran as a political outsider and was left for dead by the GOP before upsetting then-Sen. Russ Feingold (D), a titan in Wisconsin politics who served three terms in the Senate. Johnson was similarly written off in a 2016 rematch with Feingold only to win a second term by 3 points.
Along the way, Johnson established a reputation as a staunch conservative with a knack for making scientific claims with which few experts would agree, including in 2010 when he said sunspots were more likely to contribute to climate change than human behavior.
More recently, Johnson promoted in early December the debunked theory that “mouthwash has been proven to kill the coronavirus.” In comments to Fox News last Monday, he asked “what’s the point” of vaccines if fully vaccinated individuals can still catch COVID-19, though the shots’ chief goal is preventing hospitalizations and deaths – which they overwhelmingly do.
He was also a staunch supporter of an audit of the 2020 presidential election in Wisconsin, though he conceded in surreptitiously recorded audio that there was no foul play. Johnson in March also praised rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 as people who “love this country,” though he said he would have been concerned if “those were tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter and Antifa protesters.”
Those comments have made Johnson a lightning rod in the Senate and foreshadow a bare-knuckle brawl if he chooses to run – but conversations with a dozen politicos from both parties still showed an eagerness for him to top Wisconsin’s ballot in November.
“One of the reasons that Ron Johnson is so tantalizing for Democrats is because he’s probably the only candidate that could make this race a more than 4- or 5-point race. He could be just flushed out,” said Wisconsin Democratic strategist Scot Ross. “I think other undefined Republicans, it might be tighter just because they’re not known in the way Ron Johnson is.”
Of all the issues surrounding Johnson, Democrats predict that his comments on the coronavirus are the lowest hanging fruit for them.
“It’s unbelievable the things that he says when it comes to denying science and really putting people at serious risk of death,” Ross said. “That’s the thing that really is going to define a lot of what happens with him.”
Johnson has kept political observers in suspense, saying recently he would decide whether to run “shortly.” Still, he continues to fundraise, finishing September with $2.3 million in the bank, and makes frequent appearances on Fox News, hinting he could break a past promise to only serve two terms.
Democrats’ eagerness to take on Johnson runs against conventional wisdom that campaigning for an open seat is typically easier than challenging an incumbent.
However, Democrats suggest Johnson’s remarks make him unpalatable to voters in a purple state. In a Marquette Law School poll released in November, just 38 percent of voters said they’d vote to reelect him, while 52 percent said they’d prefer someone else.
“For an incumbent senator, any time you’re under 50 percent, you’re in danger territory,” said Irene Lin, a veteran operative who’s managing Democrat Tom Nelson’s campaign. “Clearly he has been a very polarizing figure. I think if you’re a Democrat, you would definitely want to run against somebody like that.”
Johnson’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment from The Hill. But Republicans boast he won’t go down easily and caution Democrats against being overly eager to run against him given his two upsets thus far.
“Democrats think they have Johnson as a very vulnerable incumbent because he’s been outspoken on a lot of issues. That’s fine. But they also think that Johnson isn’t terribly strong, which he has proven over time is not the case,” Scholz said.
“[H]e’ll be a very strong campaigner,” added Ben Voelkel, a former Johnson aide who is running for lieutenant governor. “I’d be very happy to be on the same ticket with him.”
Republicans note that Johnson enters 2022 with greater electoral chops than in either of his past two campaigns and argue regurgitating his comments is an insufficient and played out strategy for Democrats.
“Democrats have such a massive amount of misplaced hope here. At this point, Ron Johnson is basically running a heartbreak hotel for the Democrats every six years in Wisconsin,” said one Wisconsin GOP operative.
“These are new shades of the same failed playbook,” the person continued. “They’re trying to stuff a few new pages, and they’re trying to scribble new things in the margins, but it’s the same playbook, and it’s failed twice.”
Beyond Johnson’s own bona fides, he would likely have full institutional support from the GOP – something he lacked in his previous races.
“We are hopeful and optimistic that Ron Johnson will run for reelection. If he does, he will have the full support of the NRSC,” said Lizzie Letlow, the deputy communications director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which abruptly canceled an $800,000 pro-Johnson ad buy near the end of the 2016 campaign.
Even some Democrats concede that Johnson won’t be easy to topple in a state as narrowly divided as Wisconsin, particularly given the tailwinds Republicans are anticipated to enjoy.
“I do not underestimate Ron Johnson at all, because I think some Democrats think, ‘oh, he’s just so crazy. Of course, we’ll beat him,’ which we said about Trump too,” said Lin, adding “[H]e absolutely could prevail for a third term because we know the environment for Democrats.”
While it’s still unclear if Johnson will jump in the race, it is virtually guaranteed that Wisconsin’s Senate race will be among the most hotly contested in the country next year.
The state is among the swingiest in the nation, and any one race could decide who controls the Senate. But should Johnson jump in the race, Democrats are expected to go into hyper drive to knock him out.
“You never really know which state the Senate is going to come down to, but this remains the best pickup opportunity that we have, and it’s a coin flip state,” said one Wisconsin Democratic strategist. “So, buckle up.”