Republicans ‘all in’ for Ron Johnson’s Senate re-election fight in Wisconsin

In the midst of the 2016 election, the Republican Party left Ron Johnson’s candidacy for Senate re-election in Wisconsin for dead.

But he clawed his way back and still won – 3 points clear of Donald Trump’s wafer-thin margin over Hillary Clinton in the state.

This time, the party’s national committees are preparing to go all-in from the start to re-elect Johnson, who announced last week that he would seek a third term after months of deliberation. The National Republican Senate Committee, or NRSC, which works to elect GOP senators, will do “whatever it takes” to retain the seat, as a Republican Senate consultant put it. And Wisconsin GOP officials say big donors are also willing to dig deep.

“Ron is going to be re-elected. The NRSC is everything to him,” said Curt Anderson, a top adviser to NRSC Chairman Senator Rick Scott of Florida and founder of OnMessage, one of the organization’s consulting firms for several races across the country.

Anderson said that when he worked for Johnson on his first Senate campaign in 2010, taking on incumbent Democrat Russ Feingold, “nobody within 100 miles of DC gave us a chance to beat Senator Feingold.” . He added: “They took it as a joke.”

It was the same in 2016, he continued, “and the naysayers are out in force again now.”

Opponents this time around are from the Democratic Party and part of Washington’s talkative class, Republicans say. Johnson, one of Trump’s staunchest supporters in the Senate, advanced right-wing conspiracy theories, spread false claims about the 2020 presidential election and promoted questionable information about Covid, including a suggestion last month according to which gargling with mouthwash could kill the coronavirus. (Responding to comments on CNN, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who had been drafted by National Republicans to run for the Senate but ultimately decided to run for re-election instead, said, “When a madman come knock on the door, slam it closed.”)

YouTube suspended Johnson’s account last summer, citing a violation of its coronavirus misinformation policy.

Still, Republicans say they believe they can’t take conventional political wisdom and apply it to Johnson. Other politicians who made headlines for Johnson could be deemed ineligible. But Johnson campaigned as an outsider in Washington, an image he continued to cultivate through regular statements opposing big government and defending individual liberties. He has also taken tough stances against vaccination and mask mandates, issues that have divided Wisconsin along ideological lines.

“Democrats just don’t get it,” Anderson said. “To be hated by Washington insiders is a blessing. Voters love it.

And then there is simply the necessity. Protecting Johnson is crucial if Republicans are to take control of the Senate 50-50 midterm.

“It’s for all the marbles,” said Brandon Scholz, a Republican strategist from Wisconsin. “It gives him a strong position when it comes to fundraising. He can pick up the phone and say, ‘You have to re-elect me if you want majority control.’ »

The story was different in 2016. Johnson’s re-election campaign, a rematch against Feingold, seemed to be falling apart. He had conducted no polls throughout the campaign, and by August the National Party had all but withdrawn its funding from the race. This has led other donors to take similar action.

Johnson was still down double digits before October. But a focus on local issues, such as the removal of the gray wolf from the endangered species list, and a series of positive announcements have lifted it above. The national GOP later returned, investing $2.5 million in the October campaign. But two former Johnson campaign officials, who were not authorized to speak publicly, said National Party support only came after Johnson was on course to overtake Feingold.

As we approach the midpoints, Johnson’s numbers are trailing again. The latest Marquette Law School poll, from late October, showed Johnson with 39% approval, reflecting a downward trend since 2019, said Charles Franklin, who leads the poll. But considering Johnson was even further behind in 2016, Franklin said, he has plenty of room to grow. Among independents, 34% said they had no opinion on Johnson’s re-election.

“And that must be an opportunity for Johnson, because these are people who could ultimately be important enough to tip the scales,” Franklin said. “But because they don’t pay attention to him normally, they might be introduced to him during the campaign. And that could obviously work to his advantage or to the advantage of the Democrats. But that leads to a good number of people who will still learn something about Ron Johnson, perhaps for the first time.

There is also the Trump factor. Republicans say they expect the former president to rally Johnson’s base ahead of the general election; Trump endorsed Johnson last year, even before he announced he would run again.

However, in August, a liberal activist posing as a conservative Outside a GOP event, Johnson filmed a video saying there was nothing wrong with the 2020 election results, even as Trump continues to push false allegations of voter fraud.

Johnson’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Democrats are relishing the chance to end Johnson’s winning streak. Four Democrats lined up to run: Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry and Outagamie County executive Tom Nelson.

While Republicans view the four-person primary field as a liability, Democrats say it only reinforces the perception that Johnson is vulnerable.

“I encourage Republicans to take victory for granted,” Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Ben Wikler said, adding that it’s “not surprising that Republicans are desperate for money and trying to salvage his faltering campaign”.

Wikler said that in the 2018 gubernatorial race, 16 candidates were at one point trying to oust GOP Governor Scott Walker. Walker was ultimately defeated.

“Like former Republican incumbents who lost Wisconsin, like Scott Walker and Donald Trump, Ron Johnson attracted a large Democratic primary field of strong candidates who would be a dramatic improvement and inspired people to volunteer and donate. to the Democratic Party. of Wisconsin,” Wikler said.

Democrats say the landscape has changed for Johnson this cycle, arguing he can no longer portray himself as an agent of change now that he has gone against his own two-term limit. That gives Democrats an opening to portray him as a creature of dysfunctional Washington.

The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, or DSCC, says it is as determined to defeat Johnson as its Republican counterpart is to re-elect him. The DSCC opted to run its first campaign ad of the 2022 cycle against Johnson, hitting him for his votes on tax breaks and backtracking on his two-term promise.

“Ron Johnson’s selfish agenda makes him the most vulnerable incumbent on the Senate card,” said DSCC spokeswoman Amanda Sherman Baity. “The DSCC is already making early and historic investments to build on-the-ground infrastructure for the general election and ensure we beat it in 2022.”

In the view of Republicans, Democrats routinely underestimate Johnson at their peril, and the sheer size of the multi-candidate Democratic field — as well as mid-term headwinds during Biden’s presidency — could lead to primary elections and disorderly generals in Wisconsin, a swing state.

Leading Democratic nominee Barnes just said he raised about $1.2 million in the final quarter of last year, a slight increase from the $1.1 million he raised in the period. previous after its announcement. It was more than Johnson had raised in that quarter.

Steven Law, chairman of the Senate Leadership Fund, which is associated with Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, pledged more help to Johnson. He said the group came to Johnson’s aid in the final month of the 2016 campaign with $2.5 million.

“The prevailing attitude was that Feingold was too great – but Johnson proved everyone wrong,” Law said, adding that “we’re 100% behind his re-election.”

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