Wis. Sen. Johnson keeps Romney in step with congressional conservatives

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) has emerged as the point man in an effort to keep Mitt Romney in step with congressional conservatives, many of whom were slow to support him during the GOP primary. 

Romney’s campaign has kept in close contact with conservatives in order to avoid unexpected backlash from Tea Party-affiliated lawmakers, who have surprised GOP leaders at various points in the 112th Congress.

The last thing Romney needs is a blow-up with members of his own party when he should be focusing his energy against President Obama. 

To build a measure of predictability into Romney’s campaign strategy, Johnson has met frequently with conservative members of the Senate Republican Steering Committee and the House Republican Study Committee to keep the presumptive GOP nominee from walking into any friendly fire. 

An added benefit of these meetings is that they will cultivate relationships Romney would find useful in moving an agenda during his first 100 days in office, should he defeat Obama in November.

“I’m encouraged by the fact that Gov. Romney and his team realize how important it is to establish that contact, not just for the purpose of the campaign but understanding that if he’s elected president this will help him govern,” Johnson told The Hill during an interview in his office. “To me it’s really about establishing relationships, between policy people and the Romney campaign.

“I’m certainly encouraging the campaign to deal with as many members as possible,” the freshman senator, a favorite of the Tea Party movement, said. 

Conservative lawmakers met last Wednesday evening at the headquarters of Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-S.C.) Senate Conservatives Fund to coordinate strategy and discuss ways to help the Romney campaign. 

Some conservatives say they feel reassured by Johnson’s work with the Romney campaign, especially after a senior Romney adviser suggested the candidate would radically alter his campaign platform, comparing it to an Etch A Sketch, for the general election. 

“Ron has been fighting for a common-sense strategy to show Americans how conservative policies lead to a stronger economy, more jobs and more freedom,” DeMint told The Hill. “He’s a successful businessman with good instincts and I hope they listen to him because we need more conservative voices inside the campaign.”

Johnson’s work as a liaison is directed primarily at conservatives. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Romney’s other Senate liaison, and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the House liaison, did not attend Wednesday’s meeting at the Senate Conservatives Fund. 

Johnson said he is working with Blunt and will be setting up a meeting with McMorris Rodgers.

He traveled to Boston on April 30 to tour Romney’s campaign headquarters and immediately felt a sense of kinship. 

“I noticed that right away from the first day I met him. Here’s a business guy,” said Johnson, who built a successful plastics business before running for Congress. “I recognized that in him immediately — when I went to Boston and walked through his campaign headquarters and saw professional competence.”

He also had dinner with former Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt, whom Romney has tapped to lead his transition team, and has met with Leavitt on other occasions. 

Romney has policy differences with Republican lawmakers on a host of issues including Chinese currency manipulation, the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, congressional term limits and the repeal of capital gains taxes only for families earning less than $200,000 in taxable income. 

Johnson said his mission is to focus his colleagues’ attention on what they have in common with the nominee.

“I emphasize where we agree versus some of the differences,” he said. “On a lot of these issues there are principled differences in the positions people take, so I think you can respect that and say we respect[fully] disagree on this thing.”

He said Romney and conservatives agree that steps need to be taken immediately to reduce the federal deficit and roll back regulations they say stifle the private sector.

“Those are the main issues we’re dealing with. Our main goal is to make sure President Obama is a one-term president, and we’re very unified on those issues and that goal,” he said. 

The last two Republican presidential nominees, George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), relied on the Senate and House leadership to coordinate with rank-and-file Republicans. But leaders have seemed out of sync with their colleagues at times this Congress. 

And Tea Party-allied conservatives say that Romney cannot rely on Senate and House leaders alone if he wants to get the most accurate sense of the sentiments within his party.

“If Romney only listens to [House Speaker John] Boehner [R-Ohio], he’s not going to have a good read; he needs to have open-minded conversations with other parts of the conference to get a good understanding of where the party is,” a GOP aide said. 

“Conservatives want to make sure they’re part of the conversation during the campaign and after the campaign, if it’s successful, and not just run plays called by the leadership,” the aide added.