Leading up to the 2010 Senate race, Ron Johnson’s chances of ousting Democratic incumbent Russ Feingold were seen as slim. A rich businessman with a big plastics company but a low profile and no experience in politics, Johnson didn’t seem to stand a chance.
But Johnson’s intuitive grasp of Wisconsin voters—and a campaign that tapped into their disdain for single-payer health care, Obama-era spending, and establishment politicians—carried him to the Senate that year as part of the Tea Party wave and kept him afloat during his rematch against Feingold six years later. But fast forward to 2021, and GOP operatives are now wondering whether that political instinct will guide Ron Johnson toward a third term in 2022, or whether Johnson’s loyalty to former President Donald Trump could dampen his reelection chances in the state the Joe Biden won by roughly 21,000 votes in November.
Wisconsin’s lone GOP senator is notoriously difficult to pin down, which makes speculation about his political aspirations tricky. As a Wisconsin-based GOP operative explained to The Dispatch, “he always kinda zigs when you think he’s gonna zag,” a political quirk perhaps best encapsulated by his recent flip-flop on the certification of the Electoral College vote last month. After issuing a joint statement alongside 10 of his GOP Senate colleagues on January 2 announcing his intention to “reject the electors from disputed states,” Johnson walked back on those plans on January 6 after the Capitol insurrection.
“Ron Johnson’s beloved by the grassroots, he’s beloved by voters in the western and northern parts of the state—more rural areas where your typical Trump voter lies,” the GOP operative said. But his flirtation with objecting to the Electoral College certification process most likely didn’t do him any favors in the “WOW” counties—Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington—that surround Milwaukee. These college-educated suburban voters tend to vote Republican during congressional races, but their support for Trump softened in 2020. Should Johnson decide to run in 2022, the attack ads the Democrats will be able to run against him will likely be more potent with those voters—and suburban voters throughout the state—than they were in 2010 or 2016.