Here’s something you don’t see every day: Democrats goading an incumbent Republican senator to run for reelection.
It’s not only that Democrats see Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) as finally ripe for defeat after closely aligning himself with former President Donald Trump’s penchant for incendiary rhetoric. They also want to make a point that Johnson’s confrontational style is no longer a fit in his perennial swing state.
“I would love to run against Ron Johnson,” said Tom Nelson, one of a handful of Democrats vying for his party’s nomination. “I want to make a statement that in Wisconsin, his behavior is unacceptable — and this is what we’re going to do about it.”
Johnson is among the most incendiary voices in post-Trump Washington, shooting off opinions on Black Lives Matter and the Capitol insurrection, blocking stimulus checks with gusto and courting controversy on a near-daily basis. He investigated now-President Joe Biden’s son last year and sparred with the new chair of Democrats’ campaign arm over claims about the election. And while the senator said five years ago he wouldn’t seek a third term, he’s currently undecided on whether to run in 2022.
Officially, Senate Republicans want him to run again. But Johnson has a frigid relationship with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, after national Republicans aligned with McConnell bailed on Johnson during the closing months of his first reelection campaign in 2016. McConnell is eager for Johnson to make a decision soon, according to people familiar with the matter.
Republicans want clarity because they are already defending an open seat in a state Joe Biden carried in last year’s presidential race, in Pennsylvania. With the Senate equally divided at 50 seats for each party, a single race in a swing state like Wisconsin could determine the majority in 2023.
But Johnson is taking his time, freezing what is likely to be one of the most expensive and competitive Senate battlegrounds in the country, saying in a brief interview: “I’ve got a long time to decide.”
And in a rare twist, Democrats think they might have a better shot against the incumbent who defeated former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) in back-to-back contests in 2010 and 2016.
Democrats’ chances to flip GOP seats in Missouri and Ohio increased significantly after Republican senators announced their retirements recently, creating divisive open primaries in otherwise red states. But in Wisconsin, one of the most closely divided swing states in the country, Democrats counterintuitively argue they’d favor facing Johnson again, even though he’s twice shocked their party on Election Day.
Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, said he has seen an “explosion” in small-dollar donations and volunteers after the recent spate of controversial headlines from Johnson. While Wikler cautioned that it was impossible to predict the most viable candidates a year and a half away from the election, he said defeating the senator could send a “broader message.”
“My hope is that Ron Johnson runs and loses so spectacularly that Republicans rethink the extreme, fear-mongering, conspiracy-minded style of politics that has so scarred the country for the last four years,” Wikler said in an interview.
Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), the new chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, doesn’t see incumbency as an advantage for Johnson, who called Peters a liar in December: “I just see Wisconsin as a really good opportunity for us to pick up a seat. And I don’t think it matters if it’s Sen. Johnson or somebody else that runs.”
Johnson scoffed at Democrats’ eagerness to face him, saying he “couldn’t care less what they think.” He brushed off questions about whether incumbency was an advantage in the race.
“I’m not a political pundit. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it, when I decide whether I’m going to run or not,” he said. Johnson, a businessman who’d never sought public office before running in 2010, conceded, however, that being a senator has “always been a frustrating job.”
Former President Donald Trump has encouraged Johnson to run again, and Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, has said he’s optimistic the senator will seek a third term.
But many Republicans, including McConnell, are staying quiet given the dicey political alliance between the minority leader and Johnson, according to a senior Senate Republican aide familiar with the internal dynamics. Johnson believes McConnell cut bait on him too early in 2016, though Johnson won his rematch with Feingold and helped solidify the GOP majority during Trump’s presidency. Still, McConnell would support Johnson if he ran again, a source close to McConnell said.
“Nobody thought Ron Johnson could win the first time. Nobody thought Ron Johnson was going to be elected the second time,” said one GOP senator. “If he has a better chance of being the Republican senator from Wisconsin than anybody else will have, we’re for him.”
Chris Hartline, a spokesman for the NRSC, praised Johnson for “fighting back against the radical left’s big government agenda and assault on working-class Americans” and said the committee would “aggressively fight” to support him if he runs again, which would contrast with his last campaign.
Some Republicans also worry that if Johnson runs, his operation is ill-prepared for the intense campaign. Johnson had only $560,000 in his campaign account at the end of last year, significantly less than most incumbents. He’s not expected to post a large haul for the first quarter of this year, with reports due to the Federal Election Commission April 15. Still, Johnson is wealthy and could self-fund some of his campaign.
A prolonged timeline for Johnson to make up his mind could deprive potential replacements of time to build out their own campaigns if he retires. Johnson’s allies brush off those concerns, pointing out that he didn’t officially launch his 2016 reelection campaign until May of the election year, and that a shortened primary could actually benefit replacements if he chooses not to run, as it did for him in 2010.
Andrew Hitt, the chairman of the Wisconsin GOP, said Johnson could wait until early 2022 before making a decision, and that the biggest impact would be on those who might run to replace him.
“We’ve got to win Wisconsin. We’ve got to keep the seat in Republican hands, and he’s not going to do anything that puts that in jeopardy,” Hitt said. “I’m not at all worried that he’s just going to sit back and relax for 2021 and do nothing.”
Brandon Scholz, a Wisconsin political strategist who has previously worked on GOP campaigns, said Democrats have put a target on Johnson as a villain, who is “brash and says what’s on his mind.”
“That gives a lot of openings to use what he says. But don’t read that as, ‘He’s a pushover,’” Scholz said. “If he decides to run, he’s tenacious, and he’d be tough to beat.”
Despite Johnson’s notoriety among Democrats, there are serious advantages to incumbency, including fundraising prowess, name identification and existing political networks. And if Johnson retired, it would create an open primary late next summer, which could cause intra-party friction — something Democrats themselves are facing in what’s like to be a costly and competitive nominating contest.
Two Democrats are already running — Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry and Nelson, the Outagamie County executive. Lasry, the son of billionaire Bucks owner and Democratic megadonor Marc Lasry, announced Thursday raising more than $1 million for his campaign, with only $50,000 coming from his own personal funds. Several other Democrats could run, including state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, creating a crowded field for next year’s primary.
Johnson ran for Senate in 2010 as a political outsider, highlighting his business career and spending just under $9 million of his own money to win the seat. More recently, he’s courted controversy for investigating Hunter Biden as chair of the Senate Homeland Security Committee and telling a radio interviewer last month that he wasn’t afraid during the Capitol riot, though he might have been if the trespassers were “tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter and Antifa protesters.”
Dave Cieslewicz, the former Democratic mayor of Madison, said Johnson may have alienated some of the swing voters he’ll need, but that he won’t be an easy out.
“We might be better off if he did run again because he has said some just incredibly stupid things, and I do think it’s alienated moderate voters,” Cieslewicz said. But he cautioned: Democrats “always underestimate the guy.”
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