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The Sweep: Will RoJo Stay or Will He Go?
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The Sweep: Will RoJo Stay or Will He Go?

Plus: The lessons Republicans are drawing from the final results of House elections.

Campaign Quick Hits

The Future of the GOP, Part 6,427: Tim Griffin is the current Lieutenant Governor of Arkansas. Before that, he was a U.S. Attorney and two-term congressman from the state. So it won’t surprise you to learn that this past summer, Griffin announced he was running for governor. And since March 2020, he had raised $1.3 million toward that goal. But two weeks ago, former Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced that she too was throwing her hat in the ring for governor. In just a few days, she matched his nine-month fundraising haul. Reading the writing on the wall, Griffin announced this week that he has changed his mind and will run for Attorney General instead, leaving Huckabee Sanders a clear path to the governor’s mansion that her father occupied from 1996-2007.

Election Misinformation Has Consequences: Pentagon spokesman John Kirby confirmed Monday reporting from Fox News’s Jennifer Griffin that costs associated with deploying the National Guard to secure the Capitol from Jan. 6 through March 15 are $483 million. Just imagine what else we could have spent a half a billion dollars on this year!

Jonah Made a Point: In one of his recent G-Files, Jonah (quoting a great column by Amy Walter) noted that just 20 years ago, “30 senators—10 Republicans and 20 Democrats—represented a state that voted for the other party’s presidential nominee.” But now, “34 out of 35 winning Senate candidates were of the same party as the candidate who won the presidential race in that state,” and only four senators who won in 2020 hail from states that the other party’s presidential candidate won: West Virginia, Maine, Montana, and Ohio. To find out where this leads, check out David French’s book starting around page 119. Spoiler alert: it ain’t good.

Democrats’ 2022 ‘Duh’ Strategy: Dan Merica recently spoke with senior Democratic operatives to talk about their chances in 2022. Their strategy is twofold: first, “get the coronavirus pandemic under control and campaign on policy believed to be broadly popular” and then “ link vulnerable Republicans to some of the most extreme members in their party, hoping to fan the flames of conflict highlighted by far-right members like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert.” On the one hand, I could mock how obvious this strategy is and how it has basically been both sides’ playbook for decades. Trying to pass “do popular stuff, highlight how bad other guys are” as groundbreaking campaign wisdom is like bragging that you can move food from the table to your mouth. (In fairness, this is something my soon-to-be 8-month old son absolutely cannot do, despite how patiently I’ve tried to explain to him.) But then I’d have to tell you why it has been the playbook for decades: It works. And I did enjoy the National Republican Congressional Committee’s comeback when Merica asked for their reaction: “No one knows how to light money on fire better than the DCCC.” Touché, but they still have the speaker’s gavel, now don’t they?

Last week, I saw some musings about whether Sen. Ron Johnson was planning to run for a third term in Wisconsin in 2022. Johnson was left for dead in 2016 by the Republican establishment and promised his fellow cheeseheads that it would be his last race if he won. If he retires, it means an open senate seat Republicans have to defend without an incumbent, but maybe more importantly, it means another open seat Republicans have to defend along with North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Thankfully, Audrey was already working the phones and can give us a glimpse into exactly what Johnson’s political calculation might look like. We’ve shortened her original story for your newsletter-length enjoyment but if you want an even deeper dive, you can find the fuller, more luxurious version here.

All Eyes on Wisconsin

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 and 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. As a Wisconsin-based GOP operative explained to The Dispatch, “he always kinda zigs when you think he’s gonna zag,”a political quirk which is 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.

The move 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 was softer 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 as a prime example. 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 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.

Binversie thinks Democrats benefit from having Johnson in the race: “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.” 

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.

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 run forJohnson’s seat.

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. But despite being left for dead by his party, he won on Election Day by nearly 4 points.

He also told a local newspaper during that race he would not seek another term should he win reelection that year, a statement his campaign later confirmed. But he’s since backed off that promise.

In an interview with the Journal-Sentinel last month, “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.” 

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.

Why House Republicans Like What They See

Look, the only number that matters in football is the final score. Passing yards are a fun statistic, but we all know the team with the most passing yards doesn’t necessarily win. Even so, we still look at passing yards to think about the competitiveness of a team, because sometimes the win-loss numbers don’t tell the whole story. With that preface, let’s turn to the House. 

Heading into November, Democrats held a 232-197 seat advantage. Now that the race in New York’s 22nd congressional district has finally been called for the Republican, the final 2020 House score stands 222 Democrats to 213 Republicans. First, if the only thing you knew about the 2020 election was that number and that there was an incumbent president on the ballot, any political pundit would have told you that the incumbent must have won. Incumbents are hard to beat and House swings are usually a good “wave” indicator. For example, the Democrats lost 35 House seats in 1980 when Jimmy Carter lost after his first term and Republicans lost 100 seats when Herbert Hoover went down in flames in 1932. (The trend isn’t always so simple. Republicans won 9 seats in 1992 despite George H.W. Bush’s loss.) 

In addition to the 2020 win-loss record, though, Dave Wasserman at the Cook Political Report also did some fun math: Republicans came within 31,751 votes of winning the 5 additional seats they would have needed to hand Kevin McCarthy the speaker’s gavel and take back the majority in the House. That’s 32,000 out of more than 150 million votes cast for House candidates, or 0.2 percent. That’s close!

How was it so close when the presidential election wasn’t? Drop-off and ballot splitting between the two parties was wildly lopsided. According to a study published by the Brookings Institution, “the total vote cast for Republican House candidates in 2020 was 1.4 million less than for President Trump, while the total vote cast for Democratic House candidates fell short of Joe Biden’s total by 3.9 million.”

This means that despite the near-universal condemnation of how McCarthy has handled his caucus (including very much by yours truly, I will add), these are the numbers he is looking at, and he must think we’re all complete morons. Sure, we can argue that maybe Republicans coming this close to taking back the house was in spite of Trump—many of these candidates out performed him in their districts. Still, it’s hard to argue that his name on the ballot didn’t raise Republican turnout since he received 15 million more votes than either John McCain or Mitt Romney did, and 10 million more than his own 2016 vote total. 

What should we expect in 2022? On the one hand, the party with the presidency often loses seats in the first midterm election—Obama lost 64 seats and Trump lost 41. But Trump won’t be on the ballot in 2022, and we have yet to hear from the party what it means to be a Republican in a post-Trump Republican Party. And in some ways this is the party’s biggest problem. A massacre in 2020 would have charted a clear path forward. Losing the majority by 32,000 votes, by contrast, is still losing, but leaves leadership without any message at all. 

What do you do with a team that puts in the guy selling concessions as quarterback and has half of their offensive line lay down on the ground and sing ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ after every snap? Ok, sure, the team lost. But oddly, their passing yards looked pretty good … 

Sarah Isgur is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in northern Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2019, she had worked in every branch of the federal government and on three presidential campaigns. When Sarah is not hosting podcasts or writing newsletters, she’s probably sending uplifting stories about spiders to Jonah, who only pretends to love all animals.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.