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In Pivot to Messaging, Ron Johnson Looks to Purge Staff

Freshman GOP Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.) is looking to purge nearly his entire Washington, D.C.-based legislative team, according to multiple Republican sources familiar with the situation.

Johnson’s frustration with his legislative staff has been one of the worst-kept secrets in Washington for months, those close to Republican Conference politics said.

But the situation in Johnson’s office has escalated in recent weeks. The top brass of the Senate Republican Steering Committee — the Conference’s conservative hub — have connected at least one Johnson legislative aide with another GOP Senate office, and sources indicated they may be helping others find jobs before they are asked to permanently clear their desks.

The executive director for the committee declined to comment on this story.

The Wisconsin Senator said recently that he would like to refocus his efforts on political messaging, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has asked him to help coordinate strategy with the eventual GOP presidential nominee.

In an interview with Roll Call last week, Johnson denied that there would be significant changes to his staff, but senior Republican aides outside his office disputed this claim. Again today, Johnson’s office reiterated the Wisconsin Senator’s previous statements denying the imminent departures.

While top Republican sources expressed exasperation at the internal turmoil in Johnson’s office, they also noted that the Wisconsin freshman has not been diligent in building relationships with other Senators within the Conference and has alienated himself by not reaching out more frequently to colleagues.

“He’s an interesting case study of someone who has talked more than he has listened, lectured more than he has developed relationships with his colleagues, and now he’s having a tough time because of that behavior in advancing his policy goals,” one senior GOP aide said. “It’s kind of like watching a temper tantrum by a 2-year-old in the middle of the grocery store.”

“The Senate is still about relationships, and he doesn’t seem to get that,” the aide continued.

But Johnson’s office noted that he only narrowly lost his attempt to join the ranks of GOP leadership when he ran against Sen. Roy Blunt for the Conference vice chairman position earlier this year.

“Senator Johnson received 22 votes in his leadership bid – from all parts of the Republican Conference. This serves as testament to his ability to build such relationships,” a Johnson spokesman said via email.

Though Johnson has only been in the Senate for 14 months, sources said, his behavior now could have lasting effects on his influence in Washington, given exiting staffers will likely carry stories of their tribulations elsewhere. He could also be creating political jeopardy for himself in Wisconsin by pivoting so publicly to a focus on political messaging at a time when public opinion of Congress is so low.

Sources indicated that when Johnson came to Washington, he put a staff together like “any other Senator” but quickly realized that the day-to-day grind of legislating was not his forte. Johnson said last week that he wanted more of his office’s focus to be on building an effective messaging operation. Johnson’s legislative director, Robert Duncan, has already left the office.

“We’ve had incredibly low turnover in my office,” Johnson said. “Robert Duncan had a good opportunity to get back on the Senate floor. That’s about the only individual that we’ve had turn over in 15 months.”

Purging staff, however, is not new for the political newcomer.

According to a Roll Call review of Federal Election Commission disclosure filings and the staff salary database LegiStorm, only five of the 43 salaried campaign staffers working in the last quarter of Johnson’s 2010 Senate campaign got jobs with the Senator’s official office. Johnson retained his state director, deputy state director, a caseworker, regional representative and a receptionist from the campaign — all of whom are based in Wisconsin.

Though candidates don’t necessarily bring their entire campaign staffs with them once elected, it is very rare to have no carryover from the campaign, sources said. GOP sources not affiliated with the campaign or Johnson’s office said former staffers had indicated the Wisconsin Senator was frustrated with his operation in the days following the election and informed his staffers they would not be coming with him to D.C.

Insomuch that Johnson wants to focus on messaging, however, he has found recent success.

Johnson has been building a stronger television presence in the past few weeks, using the April 3 Wisconsin primary as a springboard to a larger media platform. He appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on April 1 and “Fox News Sunday” on April 8. In his interview last week with Roll Call, he emphasized how he could help presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney with his campaign messaging.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to coordinate our message very closely,” Johnson said. “I believe he certainly understands [the] advantage of having a coordinated message and strategy. I can’t predict success until it happens, but certainly the will is there.”

McConnell asked Johnson to coordinate with the GOP nominee after Johnson lost the race to become the GOP conference vice chairman to Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.).

Still, Johnson also has high-profile backers in GOP campaign circles. Foster Friess, the billionaire who until recently was a major backer of the presidential campaign of former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), told FOX News on Wednesday that Johnson should be on GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney’s short list of vice presidential candidates.

David Drucker contributed to this report.

Correction, April 13

This story has been changed to reflect the correct number of Johnson campaign staffers who were retained for salaried positions in the freshman’s Senate office. That number is five out of 43.

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