Republicans are growing bullish that Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson will soon launch his reelection campaign in 2022, setting the stage for a bruising race that could determine control of the Senate and whether former President Donald Trump will continue to have one of his staunchest allies in the chamber.
Johnson has been in no rush to publicly announce his decision, often saying that Senate campaigns are far too long and pointing out that he waited until May 2010 to announce his first bid for an election later that fall. And in interviews this week, Johnson refused to tip his hand about which way he was leaning.
“I’m not ready to say anything,” Johnson told CNN. Asked if he is planning on making his announcement next week, the senator replied, “I do all kinds of events.”
One GOP source said an announcement could come as soon as next week.
In private conversations, Republicans are coming away with the distinct impression that Johnson will run again, according to multiple GOP sources, and would be surprised if he did not. Some Republicans have grown impatient of waiting, as potential candidates decline to make a decision about their political futures until he makes his.
When asked if he wants Johnson to run this fall, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “Of course I do.”
Republicans, including Trump himself, have been urging Johnson to run again, even though Johnson said in 2016 that he wouldn’t seek a third term. In November, he said that he’d prefer to “go home” but was “panicked” about the direction of the country and unsure whether he could “give up the fight.”
“I fully expect to see Sen. Johnson run for reelection,” said Andrew Hitt, a former Wisconsin Republican party chairman. “He’s continued to travel the state. He’s been very active. All signs really point to him getting in the race very soon.”
South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Republican in the chamber, is also expected to make a major decision about whether he’ll run again in the coming days. But unlike Thune, who serves a reliably red state, Johnson knows that his choice will alter the race for one of the Democratic Party’s few pick-up opportunities in 2022.
Officials in both parties have said they want Johnson, the only Wisconsin Republican holding statewide office, to mount a reelection bid.
Even though they have other potential Republican candidates who may lack Johnson’s liabilities and could potentially appeal to more middle-of-the-road voters, some Republicans still believe that Johnson gives them their best chance to hold the seat. Democrats say the senator is uniquely vulnerable after a string of controversial and misleading comments regarding coronavirus and the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
Florida Sen. Rick Scott, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said of Johnson that “I’ve always believed he’s going to run.” And he made clear he’d like that announcement to come soon.
“Everybody that’s going to run, I’d like them to announce,” Scott said. “In this job, I’d rather get people to announce.”
The US Senate race in Wisconsin will be one of the most hotly contested of the year, no matter if Johnson runs or not.
The six Senate seats most likely to flip in 2022 are currently held by three Democrats in Nevada, Georgia and Arizona and three Republicans in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Biden narrowly won five of those states in 2020 and narrowly lost the sixth, North Carolina, but a backlash against his presidency has left Republicans optimistic that they will take back the Senate in 2022. Democrats currently control the 50-50 Senate with the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.
Johnson is the only senator to campaign in 2022 in a state carried by the opposite party’s 2020 presidential candidate. Biden beat Trump by less than one percentage point – about 21,000 votes – in Wisconsin.
Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, Wisconsin Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, Alex Lasry, an executive with the Milwaukee Bucks and son of the franchise’s billionaire co-owner, local county executive Tom Nelson, radiologist Gillian Battino and others are running in the Senate Democratic primary. The Democrats have attacked Johnson for misleading the public on the Covid-19 vaccine, downplaying the January 6 attack and dismissing climate change.
Johnson has questioned the safety of the Covid-19 vaccines, while his office has maintained that he is pro-vaccine, and touted the benefits of alternative drugs like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin that federal health officials say have not been proven effective in treating the virus.
“The misinformation and disinformation that he continues to espouse is dangerous,” Sen. Tammy Baldwin, the Democrat from Wisconsin, told CNN. “And so I do think that has an impact on the race.”
Only 38% of Wisconsin registered voters surveyed in an October 2021 Marquette Law School poll said they would probably or definitely vote to reelect Johnson.
Hitt acknowledged that Johnson faced “headwinds” but expected that he would overcome them to beat whoever emerges from the Democratic primary.
“When Sen. Johnson turns on the campaign and sets his mind to it, and goes out there, day in and day out, explaining to Wisconsinites what he has done, what he believes and what he’s going to do for them, he is a force to be reckoned with,” Hitt said. “I fully expect that he will continue to be our senator.”
In 2016, conservative groups left Johnson for dead, doubting that he could beat former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold. Johnson, a former Oshkosh plastics manufacturing company owner, won by three points.
“Sen. Johnson has proven to be one of the most effective campaigners in Wisconsin history – winning when most people thought he didn’t have a chance,” said veteran Wisconsin GOP strategist Mark Graul.
But Democrats believe that Johnson will suffer due to his strong support of Trump, even though polls show Republicans benefiting in 2022 due to Biden’s low approval ratings.
In 2019, the Democratic-controlled House impeached Trump for pressuring Ukraine to announce politically damaging investigations of Biden and his son Hunter, while using military aid and a White House meeting coveted by Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky as leverage.
After the Republican-led Senate acquitted Trump in 2020, Johnson used his position as chair of the Senate Homeland Security Committee to investigate Biden and his son Hunter’s foreign financial dealings in Ukraine. The panel did not conclude that Biden altered US policy to benefit his son.
And Johnson has continued to try and shift blame from Trump for the violence of January 6, 2021, suggesting that a small group of provocateurs may have been responsible for turning a largely peaceful protest of the 2020 election into a rampage that left five dead and about 140 police officers injured.
Johnson has also pushed back on those who said the riot was an “armed” insurrection, saying the FBI was unaware of any arms being confiscated or any shots fired besides from law enforcement, even though the Justice Department has said that more than 75 people have been charged with carrying a dangerous or deadly weapon or “causing serious bodily injury to an officer” that day.
Johnson has condemned the violence and acknowledged that other weapons besides firearms were used by the rioters.
But in an interview last year with CNN, Johnson aligned himself with Trump, questioning the legitimacy of the 2020 election.
“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, OK?”
If Johnson ultimately decides not to run, Republicans would scramble to campaign for the seat. One potential candidate is Wisconsin Rep. Mike Gallagher, although he declined to address the speculation in a brief interview.
“I’m only thinking about my current term in Congress and defeating the Chinese Communist Party,” Gallagher said. “That’s what consumes my every waking moment.”
This story has been updated with additional developments Friday.
CNN’s Ted Barrett and Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.