When Trump was sworn in, the Wisconsin governor was a Republican; Paul Ryan, a Republican from Janesville, was speaker of the House; and Reince Priebus, a former Wisconsin GOP chair, was White House chief of staff. Now the state’s governor is a Democrat, Ryan has disappeared from public life, and Priebus has passed on a run for office so he can focus on his lobbying business. Trump won Wisconsin in a surprise in 2016, with just a 30,000-vote margin, then lost to Biden by 20,000 votes in November, mostly because he tanked in the suburbs. Wisconsin’s demographics and history suggest that it could also be the perfect territory for the Biden backlash Republicans are hoping will arrive next year.
The state’s narrow political divide might make Johnson’s hardline approach seem confusing, politically speaking. Conventionally, this would be the time for a politician to veer bipartisan. Not Johnson. In March, he told a radio show that he wasn’t scared of the Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol, but “might have been a little concerned” if antifa or Black Lives Matter activists had shown up. Two weeks ago, he toyed with nativist replacement theory in a television appearance on Fox Business, asking whether the Biden administration secretly wanted “to remake the demographics of America to ensure that they stay in power forever?”
Johnson appears driven by a sincere attachment to Trump and Trumpism, undergirded by a political calculation that there are more potential Republican voters to energize in Wisconsin and that Democrats have almost completely tapped out their own voters. He declined several interview requests made over a few weeks, and a spokesperson declined to answer questions about Johnson’s timeline for deciding whether he’ll run, and why he feels that burrowing in on Trumpism accurately represents his full Wisconsin constituency.
He’s proved very good at winning to date, taking down the onetime liberal icon Russ Feingold as part of the 2010 Tea Party wave and beating him again in a 2016 rematch, in which Johnson got more votes than Trump in the state, despite having been essentially written off by national Republicans that year. He’s aware but not concerned that Republican leaders would like to know what he’s doing and that they are worried about his low fundraising so far, people who’ve spoken with him say. His dislike for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is well known, as is how much Johnson enjoys frustrating him.
In the meantime, Democrats are trying to make the most out of being left guessing. Ben Wikler, a progressive organizer, moved home to Wisconsin to become the chairman of the state Democratic Party after Trump won. Wikler succeeded—just barely. Now he’s headed into next year with a new party motto, a backronym he’s concocting from the letters in the name of the state animal: BADGER. The B stands for “Build the bench and build the party,” for example, and he has bullet points for all the other letters, but the E is a little up in the air. For now, Wikler told me, it’s “End Ron Johnson’s political career.” If Johnson opts out, Wikler said, he’ll shift to the less galvanizing “Elect a Democrat to the Senate.”