Johnson, Grassley indecision freezes key Senate races
Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have effectively hit the pause button on two potentially competitive Senate races that could help determine which party controls the upper chamber through the next presidential election.
Both senators are up for reelection next year. But even as six of their GOP colleagues have announced retirement plans ahead of the 2022 midterms, Johnson and Grassley are taking their time with their decisions, saying that it could be months before they reveal their intentions.
Republicans familiar with their thinking say they are both quietly laying the groundwork for reelection campaigns, while cautioning that one or both could still sit out the midterms.
But political strategists and operatives from both parties say that the senators’ indecision is less than ideal, depriving both parties of valuable time that could otherwise be spent raising money, honing their campaign messaging and recruiting potential candidates.
“There’s a reason why most senators announce early in the cycle if they’re not going to run for reelection,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and former aide to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). “It puts their party in the best position to keep the seat.”
“If it’s going to be an open seat, there’s no question the Republicans would like to know soon rather than later,” he added. “If it’s going to be an open seat, then they can spend time recruiting candidates and raising money for a new candidate, which is always going to be harder than raising money for an established incumbent.”
Both parties are hoping to avoid any uncertainty they can in 2022, when control of the Senate will once again be on the line. Republicans need to gain only one seat in the chamber to take back their majority. But they are also playing defense in several battleground states as Democrats look to pad their ultra-narrow Senate majority.
If either Johnson or Grassley choose to forego reelection bids in 2022, it would add to the GOP’s already-long list of Senate retirements ahead of the midterms.
Five Republican incumbents — Sens. Richard Burr (N.C.), Pat Toomey (Pa.), Rob Portman (Ohio), Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Richard Shelby (Ala.) — are all planning on stepping down after their current terms expire in early 2023. And while states like Alabama and Missouri are likely to remain in Republican hands, both parties are expecting competitive Senate races in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and even Ohio, despite its rightward drift in recent years.
For now, both Johnson and Grassley are keeping the door open to potential reelection campaigns.
Grassley’s campaign filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission, a prerequisite for a reelection bid. Johnson, meanwhile, shut down speculation about a potential gubernatorial bid this week, saying that if he runs “for anything, it’s not going to be for governor.”
There’s less concern among Republicans over Grassley’s seat. Iowa is safer territory for the GOP overall, and Republicans are convinced that Democrats would have little chance of winning if Grassley decides to run again.
Several party operatives also noted that the state’s senior senator is likely to have a successor in mind if he ultimately decides to retire, minimizing the potential for a competitive Republican primary.
Among those seen as prospective replacements for Grassley should he choose to retire are his grandson, Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley, and Gov. Kim Reynolds. There’s also talk of a potential bid by former acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, a staunch Trump ally and former U.S. attorney in Iowa.
While Grassley is hedging on questions about his 2022 plans, polling suggests that most Iowans are ready for him to retire. A new Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa poll released last week found that 55 percent of Iowans want Grassley to step down after his current term ends, while only 28 percent are hoping that he runs again.
Grassley brushed off the findings of that poll in a Wednesday conference call with reporters, saying that it would not factor into his eventual decision.
“You don’t make a decision to run based upon anything other than taking your work into consideration, taking your family into consideration and visiting with a lot of Iowans,” he said.
Grassley has served in the Senate for 40 years and is the oldest Republican in the chamber. If he runs for and wins reelection in 2022, he would be 89-years-old when he starts his eighth term in Washington.
Grassley’s indecision has largely frozen the field on both sides. One other Republican, state Sen. Jim Carlin, has jumped into the race for Grassley’s seat. But Democrats are still waiting on the sidelines to see what Grassley does.
Sean Bagniewski, the chair of the Polk County Democratic Party, said that he has heard from fewer prospective candidates this year than in 2019, as Democrats prepared to take on Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) in her first reelection bid.
“We had more Democrats feeling around, more talking about it at this point [in 2019] than we do now,” Bagniewski said. “It’s all related to [Grassley’s] decision to stay. If he stays in, it factors in for a lot of people, people who want to run against him as someone who has been there too long. If he gets out, it opens up the floodgates on both sides.”
Johnson’s indecision is a more complicated matter for Republicans.
The Wisconsin senator has found himself at the center of a media firestorm in recent days after he said that he was not worried when a group of predominantly white supporters of former President Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol in January, but may have been if the rioters had been Black Lives Matter protesters.
And while he would enter a potential reelection bid with the support of the GOP’s political operations, he has a tense relationship with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and several Republicans privately expressed deep frustration with Johnson over his often-inflammatory public remarks and willingness to lean into controversy.
Some also complained that his refusal to say whether he will seek a third term in the Senate is keeping stronger candidates from entering the race.
“The Democratic campaigns are organizing. If Johnson decides not to run, our candidates will have to start at zero,” one Republican operative who works on Senate campaigns, said. “It’s like he’s actually trying to screw with people.”
If he runs for reelection next year, Johnson will also surely face questions over his previous pledge to only serve two terms in the Senate.
Still, the Wisconsin senator has one key ally whose support carries outsized weight among Johnson’s conservative voter base: Trump.
Johnson has positioned himself as one of Trump’s top boosters in the Senate, even using his perch atop the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last year to investigate Trump’s political foes, including Biden’s son Hunter.
The former president has spoken to Johnson in recent weeks, though it is unclear whether he explicitly encouraged him to run for reelection. But Trump has also vowed to boost loyalists in next year’s midterm elections as part of his ongoing effort to cement his hold over the GOP for years to come.
While Wisconsin Republicans are waiting for Johnson to make a decision on a 2022 reelection campaign, Democrats have already begun jumping into the race.
Among those who have already declared primary bids are Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, who helped spearhead the city’s bid to host the 2020 Democratic National Convention, and Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, a former majority leader in the Wisconsin state Assembly.
Several other Democrats are considering Senate bids, including state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.).
The concern over Grassley and Johnson’s political intentions in 2022 isn’t universal. Brandon Scholz, a veteran strategist in Wisconsin who has worked on GOP races, said that waiting to make such a decision may have posed a challenge years ago. Modern campaigns are simply more nimble, he said.
“Every tool in the box is going to be there,” Scholz said. “It doesn’t take what it used to to pull a campaign together. Start tomorrow and they’re off and running. If you’re talking about an incumbent, that shortens the timeline even more. Guys like Ron Johnson can raise money. He’s done it already. He’ll have full support in the state.”