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.
But Johnson doesn’t mind an old-fashioned political brawl.
Take his latest kerfuffle with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Last month, the paper’s editorial board called for his resignation for “[inciting] an act of domestic terrorism” leading up the January 6 Capitol siege. Rather than cast the piece aside as mainstream media rubbish, Johnson penned a rebuttal in the Sentinel’s own editorial pages, in which he engaged with the board’s arguments and defended his own position that “we needed to have the debate” surrounding alleged voting irregularities during the November election. Moral of the story: Johnson knows how and when to engage with his critics.
“The one thing I will say, though, is while he is difficult to read, he has always had a very good pulse on where Wisconsin voters are and tends to have a read on these voters before everyone else does,” the GOP operative said. “He knows how to win in Wisconsin, and he probably gives Republicans certainty that he knows how to successfully run a statewide race, which is something he’s uniquely positioned to provide.”
Johnson’s instinctive grasp of Wisconsin voters predates his first Senate bid. As Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan noted at the time, Johnson delivered a speech in 2010 that helped put him on the map. Former Milwaukee radio host Charlie Sykes—now editor-at-large of The Bulwark—read the speech on his live show, turning Johnson into a rising conservative star virtually overnight:
A conservative radio host named Charlie Sykes got hold of a speech Mr. Johnson gave at a Lincoln Day dinner in Oshkosh. He liked it and read it aloud on his show for 20 minutes. A speech! The audience listened and loved it. A man called in and said, “Yes, yes, yes!” Another said, “I have to agree with everything that guy said.” Mr. Johnson decided to run because of that reaction, and in November he won. This week he said, “The reason I’m a U.S. senator is because Charlie Sykes did that.”
To say Sykes and Johnson have since parted ways during the Trump era would be an understatement. But by reading that speech on his radio show in 2010, Sykes identified the political outsider as a man with keen insight into Wisconsin voters’ brewing resentment for establishment politicians in Washington.
As Johnson’s second term nears an end, Wisconsin Republicans are now concerned that those political instincts may be compromised. On the flip side, the GOP operative I spoke to also explained that Wisconsin voters typically tend to give Johnson the benefit of the doubt: “He has proved time and again he will kind of do what he thinks is in the best interest of the state—kind of stick to his principles and weather the storm whether it’s popular or unpopular.”
The jury is still out on whether Johnson even wants to seek another term. Kevin Binversie, who served as the research director for Ron Johnson’s first Senate campaign, recalls having pizza a day or two after winning the election in 2010, when the campaign manager jokingly reminded Johnson that they’d get to do it all again in six years.
“He just turns to [a long-time staffer] and goes: ‘We’ve gotta do this again?’ And it was the most sincere ‘You’re kidding me, right? I just survived this. Why are we thinking about six years down the road?’ And I think that’s been his mentality when it comes to these reelections,” said Binversie.
“I honestly think his retiring actually makes it easier for Republicans to hold the seat than him being there,” Binversie said. “Watch the Twitter feed of either the Wisconsin Democratic Party or their chairman, Ben Wikler—they want Ron there so they can fundraise off it.” Just check out the Wisconsin Democratic Party’s website, where visitors are immediately greeted with a pop-up ad that reads: “To defeat Ron Johnson start a monthly donation today.”
Indeed, Wisconsin-based Democratic operative Joe Zepecki is bullish on Democrats’ ability to flip Johnson’s Senate seat in 2022. “Whatever credibility [Johnson] earned over the course of his political career, he has in my view thrown a lot of that away with his flirtation—and more—around the big lie that this election was anything other than free and fair,” Zepecki told The Dispatch.
Trump loyalty aside, the fact that both Johnson’s seat and the governor’s mansion are up for grabs in 2022 also puts Wisconsin Republicans in a tight spot. “Two statewide offices to primaries equals bad for Republicans, because that’s more than enough space for two hot-button races to have a Trump Republican lane and a more traditional Republican in the Paul Ryan fashion lane, and probably a few folks in between,” Zepecki said.
If he bows out, Wisconsin Rep. Mike Gallagher, former Congressman Sean Duffy, and combat veteran Kevin Nicholson—who launched an unsuccessful Senate campaign in 2018—have been thrown around as promising GOP contenders to fill Johnson’s seat should he retire.
But Johnson also has a knack for winning tough races. In 2016, he was so far down in the polls that GOP Leader Mitch McConnell and the National Republican Senatorial Committee responded by essentially abandoning his campaign. He sent political shockwaves through Washington when he won on Election Day by nearly 4 points.
Though much has changed about Johnson’s campaign tactics, his disdain for establishment politicians has remained a defining feature of his political career. “Once Johnson got left for dead in 2016 because the polling was bad—and then managed to sneak out another victory—from that point on, it’s like RoJo Unchained, right? He did it without the help of what he would refer to as establishment Republicans.”
Last month, Johnson broke his silence on his political future during an interview with the Journal-Sentinel. “My bias has always been [to serve] two terms and go home,” Johnson said. “That continues to be my preference, but at the same time, the Senate is kind of a firewall against total control by Democrats, which would be, I think, a very bad thing for this country.”
The interview echoes a promise he made to voters prior to his second victory against Feingold. Speaking with the Baraboo News Republic in 2016, Johnson said he would not seek another term should he win reelection that year, a statement his campaign later confirmed. If he decides to run in 2022, Democrats will likely run attack ads claiming that the GOP senator is not a man of his word.
It’s still unclear whether Johnson will keep his prior commitment to two terms. When pressed on the senator’s 2022 plans this week, his press team didn’t bite: “Ron Johnson is focused on doing his job, not playing political parlor games,” his communications director Ben Voelkel told The Dispatch.
But something changed in Johnson during that 2016 race. Per Kevin Binversie: “He went from being his own man who would play where he needed to play to: ‘Well, you guys weren’t there for me. Screw you.’” So now everyone is left guessing.
Editor’s Note, February 9: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this piece was cut off abruptly. The full version has been restored.