Sen. Ron Johnson seems to be relishing his place at the center of the controversies dominating Washington.
For two months, the Wisconsin Republican has taken on everyone who blamed former President Donald Trump for inciting the deadly riot at the Capitol: Democrats, the mainstream media, even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. He’s raised questions about whether Trump supporters were in fact culpable for the violence, earning him the scorn of his colleagues for advancing dangerous conspiracies even as he says he’s just seeking the truth.
Now, he is leading the Republican effort against President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill, employing extreme tactics by forcing Senate clerks to read its every word and offering a flood of amendments to highlight its astronomical cost.
Johnson’s wars to reshape history and policy come at a crucial personal moment, as he chooses whether to run again in 2022, a decision that will alter the fight for the future control of the Senate.
Johnson knows he’s in the crosshairs.
“I think it’s obvious that I’m target number one here,” Johnson told CNN. “People are out to destroy me.”
Johnson is the only Republican to hold statewide office in Wisconsin, a state that chose Biden over Trump by less than one point, and could be the only senator to campaign in a state carried by the opposite party’s 2020 presidential candidate.
But Johnson is proudly pro-Trump, pushing further than many of his Republican colleagues to rewrite the narrative of January 6. Last month, Johnson said that McConnell needed “to be a little careful” after he blamed the former President for the Capitol riot, and claimed the Senate Republican leader did not speak for the Senate GOP conference. Johnson revealed to CNN that he couldn’t support McConnell for leader again.
“That’s not on the table, no,” Johnson said of backing the GOP leader, the first Republican senator to publicly take that stance.
As Republicans debate the former President’s role in the future of the Republican party, Johnson has firmly placed himself in Trump’s camp, speaking with him by phone just days ago. He said he expects the former President to support and campaign for him if he runs again.
“I’ve always aligned myself with the people who supported Trump,” Johnson said. “That’s how I view it.”
During a recent high-profile hearing, Johnson inserted into the record a first-person account that tried to shift the responsibility from Trump to a small group of provocateurs, suggesting they turned a largely peaceful protest of the 2020 election into a rampage that left nearly 140 officers injured and five dead. Johnson then repeatedly pushed back on those who said the riot was an “armed” insurrection, saying the FBI is unaware of any arms being confiscated or any shots fired besides from law enforcement. Johnson has condemned the violence and acknowledged that other weapons besides firearms were used by the rioters.
In the interview with CNN, Johnson refused to bat down the Trump lie that the election was stolen.
“I think there are some real issues that have not been answered and I think these are legitimate concerns about the election,” Johnson said. “I’m not afraid of the truth, okay?”
Johnson says he’s perplexed by his critics and media coverage he characterized as “false headlines, putting words in my mouth, assigning me motives that I don’t have.” He said he isn’t bothered by it; that he has “really thick skin” and the target on his back may even encourage him to run again.
“If anything it makes me feistier,” said Johnson.
Democrats line up to challenge Johnson
Johnson is right; ousting him is one of the Democrats’ top goals in 2022. Senate candidate Alex Lasry, a 33-year-old Milwaukee Bucks senior vice president and son of Marc Lasry, a hedge fund billionaire, is being challenged from the left by Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson. Other Democrats, including Wisconsin Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, Rep. Ron Kind and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes are also considering running for the seat.
The primary could prove to be a divisive, personal battle. Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told CNN “it’s too early to say” if the DSCC will back anyone in it. But Democrats are united in refuting Johnson’s characterizations of the Capitol riot.
“This is an example of how Ron Johnson is not representing the people of Wisconsin, of how he is continuing to not be truthful and stand up for us, but rather trying instead to stand up for former President Trump,” Lasry told CNN.
Lasry and other Wisconsin Democrats have indicated that their focus would be on economic and health issues rather than the riot. The $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill would send $1,400 direct payments to some Americans, and spend hundreds of billions of dollars for schools and local governments and extend enhanced unemployment benefits.
In a statement, Godlewski attacked Johnson for opposing “desperately-needed economic relief for working people” and “undermining the public health guidance that saves lives,” as well as downplaying “a deadly, violent insurrection against American democracy.” Nelson told CNN, “We’ve got a real crisis here at home and (Johnson’s) consumed by these conspiracy theories.”
Polls show that the Democrats’ bill is broadly popular. But Johnson has said that he would force the Senate staff to read it aloud in order to draw attention to its cost, calling it a boondoggle after Congress already passed trillions of dollars of aid.
Johnson said he’s not afraid of using the Senate rules to drag out the proceedings and make the debate as excruciatingly long as possible.
“We’re talking about $1.9 trillion,” said a defiant Johnson. “A stack of one billion dollar bills that would extend halfway past the distance to the moon. And we want to do this in a matter of hours? I don’t think that’s right.”
Will Johnson run again?
Johnson’s spunk may come from the knowledge that he won his two Senate races on his own terms. In 2010, the wealthy plastics manufacturer from Oshkosh rode the Tea Party movement to triumph over three-term Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold. He then beat Feingold again in 2016, when even some Republican strategists thought he was a goner. In 2022, Johnson could run in a potentially good election cycle for Republicans against the complete Democratic control of Congress and the White House.
Wisconsin Republicans say that Johnson is truly undecided. Party leaders are watching him closely.
“I want him to run,” said Sen. Rick Scott, a Florida Republican who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “I think he’s a strong candidate, and I think he’ll win.”
In 2016, Johnson said his second term would be his last, and in 2019, he said that his wife would prefer he retire. After winning two seats in Georgia this year, Democrats now control the Senate, removing Johnson from a coveted position chairing the Senate Homeland Security committee, where he could’ve led oversight investigations into the Biden administration.
Mark Graul, a Republican strategist who ran George W. Bush’s 2004 winning reelection campaign in Wisconsin, noted that Johnson outperformed Trump in the suburbs in 2016 but said it’s “too early to say whether that would be the case again.”
But while his allies say Johnson is clearly the strongest Republican candidate, Graul said if Johnson decides not to run, it would give the party a chance to rearrange the path to victory, “to expand that coalition a little bit more, in terms of moving beyond just hopefully keeping those rural Trump voters, but also making some inroads back into the suburbs.”
Peters, the DSCC chair, projected confidence as Johnson makes his decision.
“It’s a great pickup opportunity for us, whether he runs or not,” he said.
CNN’s Olanma Mang contributed to this report.