Democrats’ No. 1 Target for 2022

If Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin seeks reelection, the race could be a key test of Trumpism’s viability in a swing state.

Ron Johnson speaking in front of American flags
YURI GRIPAS / REUTERS

Ron Johnson has brought Republicans and Democrats together: They all seem to agree that they want the senator from Wisconsin to run for a third term next year.

Former President Donald Trump has weighed in from Mar-a-Lago: “Even though he has not yet announced that he is running, and I certainly hope he does, I am giving my Complete and Total Endorsement to Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin … He has no idea how popular he is. Run, Ron, Run!” Senator Rick Scott of Florida, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, “is optimistic that Senator Ron Johnson will seek a third term,” a committee spokesperson, Lizzie Litzow, told me.

The Democrats are just as eager. “Johnson is villain No. 1 on the Senate map,” Stewart Boss, the national press secretary for the Democrats’ Senate-campaign arm, told me. The Trumpy positions Johnson has taken and his attacks on Joe Biden mean that the senator “should absolutely stand for reelection,” so Democrats can have the satisfaction of beating him, a former Biden-campaign aide told me, requesting anonymity because the comment wasn’t made on behalf of the campaign.

Everyone is in the dark, though, as to whether Johnson will actually run, and unsure about which decision would be better for Republicans’ chances of holding his seat. Politics used to be about candidates competing to see who had the greatest appeal, building support across coalitions of voters. Johnson, instead, has been catering to his Trump-centric base—and alienating Democrats in closely divided Wisconsin.

Trump and his allies love that Johnson turned the Senate Homeland Security Committee’s attention to investigating Hunter Biden last year. And more than almost anyone else in the Senate, Johnson has endorsed Trump’s decision to move the GOP away from free-market economics and traditional family values and toward reactionary politics. Johnson’s Trumpy course has also motivated his haters, who see a man embracing 21st-century Know-Nothingism and white paranoia. The senator’s allies and foes alike are mulling the implications of his support of Trumpism. Would Republicans be better off with a candidate with less baggage but less name recognition? Would Democrats be better off facing a candidate who’s less established, but also less of a target to rally against?

Johnson’s decision will have effects far beyond Wisconsin—most of all, because any reelection effort would be a major test of Trumpism’s future in a crucial state for both parties. Already, Johnson is one of just two Republican swing-state senators up for reelection who hasn’t announced he’s retiring (the other, Marco Rubio of Florida, is expected to run for a third term). A race with him in it would immediately become the marquee campaign of the cycle. Tens of millions of dollars would flow into Wisconsin from Democrats looking to take him out and Republicans looking to protect him. That would, in turn, pull resources from other contests across the country—resources that are always scarcer in midterm elections than in presidential-election years. Republicans need to net just one seat next year to win back control of the Senate. If they do, Joe Biden and the Democrats won’t be haggling over how large to make his legislative packages or whether to eliminate the filibuster. With a GOP Senate, Biden and his allies would be hard-pressed to confirm judges and administration officials, let alone pass major new laws.

If Johnson were to run, Democrats would make defeating him a national cause, like they did with Senator Ted Cruz of Texas in 2018 and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina in 2020—both of whom won. But the number of candidates hoping to take on Johnson, and the fact that the Democratic primary won’t be held until August 2022, means that his potential opponents have a lot of infighting to get through before they can face him.

Wisconsin is a confusing state, politically. No state in America has two senators as different as Wisconsin’s; few even elect senators from different parties anymore. Johnson’s Democratic counterpart, Tammy Baldwin, is one of the Senate’s most liberal members. A former congresswoman from the lefty stronghold of Madison and the chamber’s first openly lesbian member, Baldwin was first elected to the Senate in 2012, two years after Johnson’s Tea Party win, and she glided to reelection in 2018 by an 11-point margin.

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.”

Wikler has started chipping away at Johnson, putting a few thousand dollars of state-party money into TV ads attacking the senator for having “incited” the Capitol riot and calling him “unfit to serve.” Wikler also has 300 neighborhood organizing teams in the state, led by paid staff who are already reaching out to voters, and he says the work will continue to ramp up.

“If the 2022 electorate looks like 2010 or 2014, Ron Johnson’s strategy could pay off,” Wikler said. “It’s the job of everyone who doesn’t think he’s fit for office to make sure that many more people show up in 2022 and that the electorate looks like the state, and not just the right-wing slice of it.”

In part because Johnson is such an appealing opponent for Democrats, the field of candidates hoping to take him on keeps growing. Alex Lasry, who moved to the state several years ago to become an executive with the Milwaukee Bucks, entered the race early, and has been fundraising and building up support. Tom Nelson, a county executive, has been trying to position himself as a longtime politician reborn as the Bernie Sanders–style candidate in the race. Sarah Godlewski, the state treasurer, jumped in last week, declaring, “Ron Johnson hasn’t just lost touch with Wisconsinites; he’s lost touch with reality.” Several others have expressed interest, including longtime moderate Representative Ron Kind, whose decision may be bound up in whether state Republicans try to gerrymander his district so much that his reelection becomes impossible. More are likely to emerge.

For months, though, much of the conversation on the Democratic side has revolved around whether Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes will be a candidate himself. Young, Black, already elected statewide with a base of support in heavily Democratic Milwaukee, and with connections to a broader liberal network, Barnes would likely reshape the race if he entered it—and sources told me that he’s seriously considering doing so, with an announcement possible later in the year.

Some Democrats are worried about a large field of candidates in a long primary race that will be resolved only a few months before the general election. Others comfort themselves by saying that a months-long primary will provide more than enough time for the candidates to hone their pitches and have their weaknesses exposed early. All of the Democratic candidates are young and energetic. A late primary, Democrats tell themselves, means they’ll be able to rally around the candidate whose profile best fits the mood heading into November 2022. Will next year be one that favors candidates with a business background? Progressive sensibility? Women? Black candidates? Moderates? Self-funders? Voters won’t be locked in early if the mood changes between now and next August.

As Republicans and Democrats all wait on and hope for Johnson, they insist they’d also be in good shape without him.

“We are confident that Republicans will hold the Senate seat in Wisconsin. In the meantime, we will spend every day highlighting the infighting within Wisconsin’s Democrat Party in what’s clearly going to be one of the nastiest primaries in the country,” Litzow, the Republican campaign-committee spokesperson, said.

“Democrats are going to be energized to flip this seat whether he runs for reelection or not, but Johnson’s full-on embrace of dangerous conspiracy theories has made him an unpopular and divisive figure and a liability for Republicans,” Boss, the Democratic campaign-committee spokesperson, said.

Lasry, who’s out ahead on pitching his own candidacy, told me that Johnson will be a factor in the race whether the senator is a candidate or not.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily just running against Ron Johnson—I think you’re running against what the Republican Party has become, and Ron Johnson is a symbol of that,” Lasry said. “The whole point of what we have to do as a party, and me as a candidate, is make sure voters know that there’s no difference between Ron Johnson and the rest of the Republican delegation.”

Making that argument will be easier once Johnson decides whether he’s running. But for now the senator has everyone watching—and waiting.