Campaign

GOP braces for nail-biter with Ron Johnson reelection bid

Republicans are voicing early concerns over Sen. Ron Johnson’s (R-Wis.) reelection bid ahead of a potentially unprecedented Democratic onslaught to unseat him.

Democrats boast that ad spending will reach nine figures in Wisconsin as they seek to highlight Johnson’s proclivity to sound off on hot-button issues with outlandish — and at times conspiratorial — takes. And while Johnson is anticipated to enjoy a favorable political environment this November, early Democratic maneuvering has sparked GOP nail-biting and shot Johnson’s race to the top of Senate Republicans’ defensive priorities.

“Ron Johnson has always been outspoken. He’s not been afraid to be in front of issues that others may back away from. And as a result, he becomes a polarized figure, especially in the media. That could cause some Republicans to worry how Johnson is portrayed during the campaign,” said Wisconsin GOP strategist Brandon Scholz. “Certainly, Democrats will attack him for comments that he has made on issues that they feel could be wedge issues.”

Showing how high a focus Johnson’s reelection is, a half-dozen Republicans who spoke to The Hill forecasted that his race could be the toughest out of all the Senate seats they’re defending, including in states like Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

In an interview last week, Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.), the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), said Johnson was taking all the right steps to win a third term – but that a win would be hard fought.

“I think Ron Johnson probably has the hardest state,” Scott said when asked which of Senate Republicans’ defensive races would be the most challenging.

Republicans overwhelmingly think Johnson will be able to pull off reelection this year, particularly given the red wave that the GOP anticipates. However, they concede they’re in a dogfight to defend Wisconsin and are anxious over a likely Democratic onslaught of attack ads.

Democratic groups have already dropped $5.3 million in Wisconsin since Johnson announced his reelection bid in January, according to tracking firm AdImpact, and that figure is expected to exponentially amplify into November. And while Wisconsin is no stranger to fierce statewide election fights, Republicans worry this offensive will put past cycles to shame.

“Any time you expect to get $100 million or more spent against you, there’s a high level of concern,” said Bill McCoshen, a Wisconsin GOP strategist who ran former Gov. Tommy Thompson’s successful 1994 reelection campaign.

Johnson has given Democrats plenty of ammunition with controversial comments on topics such as the coronavirus, the 2020 election and the Jan. 6, 2021, riot.

He touted in December the debunked theory that “mouthwash has been proven to kill the coronavirus.” He later asked in January on Fox News “what’s the point” of vaccines if fully vaccinated individuals can still catch COVID-19, though the shots are overwhelmingly successful in preventing hospitalizations and deaths.

He was a vocal supporter of auditing the 2020 presidential election in Wisconsin despite admitting there was no foul play and pushed the idea that state lawmakers could take over control of federal elections in the state.

Johnson last year also praised rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 as people who “love this country,” though he said he would have been concerned if “those were tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter and antifa protesters.” 

And just Monday, Johnson said that Republicans should repeal Obamacare if they take back both chambers of Congress this year and the White House in 2024, reviving a contentious legislative fight the GOP forsook after 2018 before backtracking.

Those comments are anticipated to be the focal point of Democrats’ ads. They may not move the needle much with Republicans who already support Johnson or Democrats who rail against him, but they could impact a sliver of independent voters who could still make a difference in a state characterized by wafer-thin margins.

“Sure,” McCoshen said when asked if he was concerned over how those comments will play with swing voters. “He’s going to have some work to do there.”

Johnson’s rhetoric is believed to be at least partially responsible for a consistent drop in his approval ratings. A Marquette University Law School poll released last week showed his approval rating sitting at 33 percent.

Democrats say those numbers indicate an easy target that they expect to pummel this year.

“Every fall of an election cycle, Wisconsin thinks it’s maximized the amount of political advertising we can see. Not yet,” said Wisconsin Democratic strategist Joe Zepecki. “People are going to be hiding under the couch come October to try and get away from all the political communication.”

Despite all that, Democrats will have their work cut out for them in unseating Johnson.

Johnson first won election in 2010, upsetting then-Sen. Russ Feingold (D), a Wisconsin titan. He unexpectedly won again in a rematch in 2016, even outperforming former President Trump in the state.

This time, Democrats are mired in a crowded and late primary that doesn’t include any candidate with Feingold’s stature while likely being tied to President Biden’s low approval ratings — a connection the Johnson campaign is eager to make.

“Despite being outspent by over $11 million and enduring a constant barrage of false attacks by Democrats and their liberal media allies, Senator Johnson is well-positioned to win reelection this November. He looks forward to contrasting his vision and impressive record of accomplishments with the failures of Democrat governance like rampant inflation, rising crime, a higher cost of living, and out-of-control government spending,” said Johnson campaign spokesperson Jake Wilkins.

Republicans chalk up Johnson’s record of electoral success to his own unique connection to Wisconsin voters who are either used to or appreciative of his antics and might now be less susceptible to persuasion by a Democratic ad assault.

“The reality is Ron Johnson has been counted out twice before and always shown a connection with voters who appreciate him speaking his mind, consequences be damned,” said one Wisconsin GOP strategist. “The landslide of liberal outside money that’s already underway won’t change that, especially with Democrats failing to learn the lessons of their past two defeats.”

Johnson’s peculiar comments are certainly nothing new to Wisconsinites.

Running in 2010, he said that sunspots are responsible for climate change, for instance. And now, after 12 years in office, Republicans think a playbook leaning too heavily on his comments may be insufficient.

“People outside of Wisconsin underestimate Ron Johnson and they look at things that he said and they just kind of giggle with, ‘Oh, goody, here we go. We can get him on this,’ ” Scholz said. “Voters are used to it. They know Ron Johnson. This is not a new kind of campaign. I think if you understand that, that this isn’t new to them, you probably have a sense of why Ron Johnson prevails so often.”

On top of that, Republicans in Washington are expected to go all in on his reelection.

Outside groups deserted Johnson in 2016, culminating in the NRSC’s abrupt cancellation of an $800,000 pro-Johnson ad buy just before the race. That kind of wavering is no longer anticipated to be an issue.

The Senate Leadership Fund, the top Senate GOP Super PAC that’s allied with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), “is all-in on reelecting Ron Johnson,” said spokesperson Jack Pandol. “We consider Wisconsin a top-tier priority, and you’ll see an investment reflective of that belief when the time is right.”

But perhaps most importantly, Johnson is running in a GOP wave year filled with inflation, coronavirus fatigue and more — mirroring the kind of environment that got him elected in 2010 and that could wash over any grumblings over his more outlandish remarks.

“The issue matrix works really well for Republicans this year,” McCoshen said. “And Johnson has caught a couple of waves in the past.

“Republicans will be able to withstand all of the attacks because the environment is so favorable. For Ron Johnson, this is the perfect year for reelection.” 

Tags Donald Trump Election 2022 Joe Biden midterms Mitch McConnell Rick Scott Ron Johnson Wisconsin

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