How do you solve a problem like Ron Johnson?

Republicans might be stuck with a weak candidate as they try to retake the Senate

August 24, 2021 12:56 pm
"Ron Johnson" by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Ron Johnson (Gage Skidmore | CC BY-SA 2.0

The Cook Political Report recently categorized Sen. Ron Johnson’s 2022 re-election race as a “toss-up” — making Johnson the only incumbent in the country to earn that dubious distinction, which is particularly unusual for a two-termer whose challenger is yet to be determined. And that was even before Johnson’s top-polling prospective opponent, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, got into the race.

The reason the race is a tossup, according to Jessica Taylor, the Senate and governors editor at the Cook Political Report, is partly because Johnson is a Republican in a state that went for Biden, partly because the whole field of Democratic contenders, including State Treasurer Sarah Godlweski, is so strong, but also, Taylor says, “I had to additionally factor in the fact that he was saying all these crazy things every single day.”

Wisconsinites have grown accustomed to Johnson’s headline-generating statements, including his embrace of the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol, whom he described as “people that love this country, that truly respect law enforcement,” and that he “might have been a little concerned” if they were Black Lives Matter protesters. There was his early insistence that preventing deaths from the pandemic was not worth the economic cost of keeping people home and his relentless promotion of ineffective alternative remedies, his opinion that masks “have not been particularly effective” at stopping the spread of COVID-19, his own refusal to get vaccinated, and his press conference with people who have had rare adverse reactions to COVID-19 vaccines, in an apparent effort to spread fear and confusion — Johnson’s specialty.

It’s no secret that Johnson is driving Republicans crazy, waffling about whether or not he will run again and preventing more, err, presentable candidates from launching their campaigns while he makes up his mind. 

Take U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Green Bay), the up-and-coming GOP star, who comes off as smart, polished, and moderate — three qualities Johnson distinctly lacks. Gallagher raised nearly $625,000 in the second quarter amid speculation he could run for Senate, according to The Hill.

At a recent forum on school choice sponsored by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty and the Heritage Foundation, Gallagher struck a conciliatory note toward teachers, who have been in the GOP crosshairs in Wisconsin for the last decade. “We owe our teachers a great debt of gratitude,” Gallagher said. “And my fear is, because of some disagreements we may have with teachers unions, sometimes we don’t have as much of  an appreciation for teachers who are being asked to do a very, very difficult job, and whose workload is only increasing every single day.”

Gallagher is on board with the powerful school choice lobby, which is pushing to siphon more taxpayer money into private schools while starving the public school system. But his remarks on the issue sounded downright thoughtful: “It strikes me, at least as a conservative in Wisconsin, sometimes we just rely too heavily on talking points related to school choice,” he said, “and my big realization was that school choice, while wonderful, I believe is a necessary but insufficient condition for success, and we have to think about … what else is part of our education agenda.”

Wait, there is a Republican who is thinking about an education agenda

The same week Gallagher led that thoughtful school choice discussion, Johnson was busy making news by declaring on the Wendy Bell radio show that “ventilators, unfortunately, were probably doing more harm than good,” in the fight against COVID-19. Johnson also tweeted last week about his favorite hobby, “early treatment” using quack remedies to stop the pandemic, and put up an image of Ivermectine — commonly used as a horse medicine and toxic to humans in its veterinary formulation, which got a Twitter rebuke from the Food and Drug Administration on Saturday.


Other symptoms of Johnson’s chronic foot-in-mouth disease include his recent confession that he voted against the bipartisan infrastructure plan without bothering to read it, and his request to Gov. Tony Evers that Wisconsin end supplemental unemployment for people displaced during the pandemic, declaring in a statement, “The biggest problem businesses in Wisconsin face now is finding people willing to turn down government subsidies and go back to work.” 

Both parties are closely watching every race in the evenly split 50/50 Senate. Of the 20 Republican Senate seats that are up next year (14 Democratic seats are up) only two — Wisconsin and Pennsylvania— are held by Republicans in states where Biden won, making them particularly closely watched contests. In Pennsylvania, where Republican Sen. Pat Toomey is not running for re-election. Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb has generated a lot of excitement by getting in, making the race Democrats’ “best opportunity to expand their hairbreadth control of the Senate,” according to the New York Times

In Wisconsin, the Republicans are stuck defending Johnson, the only incumbent GOP senator running in the 2022 — unless, of course, he decides to step aside — and time is growing short for another candidate to build a campaign.

“Senate races, especially, have just become so incredibly nationalized that the states sort of hue more closely to their presidential results — because voters view them as voting for a party, rather than a person,” says Cook’s Taylor.

In Wisconsin, where Biden won, that does not bode well for Johnson, Donald Trump’s chief enabler. 

“Johnson, I think, is still going to be able to animate the Trump base — I wouldn’t count him out,” says Taylor. But being the only incumbent GOP senator on the ballot in a state that Biden won is “an added hurdle.”

But the biggest hurdle of all is Johnson himself. That’s going to be a hard one to get over.

Correction: This column has been updated to correct the amount Rep. Mike Gallagher raised in the second quarter of this year, which was $625,000.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Her book "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel Award from The New Press.