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Johnson makes it clear: He’s running again in Wisconsin

Senate battle could be one of the most competitive in the country

Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson is running for a third term.
Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson is running for a third term. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson announced Sunday he is running for a third term, setting up one of the most competitive Senate races of the 2022 election cycle. 

“During the 2016 campaign, I said it would be my last campaign and final term. That was my strong preference, and my wife’s,” Johnson wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed Sunday. “Neither of us anticipated the Democrats’ complete takeover of government and the disastrous policies they have already inflicted on America and the world, to say nothing of those they threaten to enact in the future.”

As one of two states that backed President Joe Biden in 2020 with a Republican-held Senate seat up this year, Wisconsin is a top target for Democrats looking to expand their razor-thin majority. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Lean Republican.

Johnson’s decision to run for reelection could be welcome news for Republicans, who are already contending with open-seat races in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Alabama, Missouri and North Carolina. With Johnson running, Republicans could avoid a messy and divisive primary. Another late decider, South Dakota Republican John Thune, the Senate minority whip, said Saturday he would run again.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee greeted Johnson’s announcement by releasing an ad accusing him of using his tenure in the Senate to enrich himself and his allies while “voting to spike the cost of health care for working families.”

Democrats believe they have a good shot at unseating Johnson, a staunch ally of former President Donald Trump who has grabbed headlines for promoting alternatives to COVID-19 vaccines and opposing additional spending for pandemic relief. But first, they have to pick a nominee from a crowded field of candidates.

Some progressives have begun to coalesce around Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who would be the state’s first Black senator, if elected. Barnes has been endorsed by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Milwaukee-area Rep. Gwen Moore and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. During his first fundraising quarter, Barnes raised $1.1 million. His campaign had $711,000 on hand as of Sept. 30. 

More than a dozen other Democrats have filed with the Federal Election Commission to take on Johnson. Campaign strategists in both parties consider just a handful to be in the top tier. Besides Barnes, those include state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, who has been endorsed by EMILY’s List, and Alex Lasry, an executive for the Milwaukee Bucks NBA franchise, which his father co-owns. Some strategists also include Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson.

As of Sept. 30, Lasry led the Democratic field in fundraising and cash on hand, raising a total of $3.1 million, including a $800,000 loan from the candidate himself, and ending the quarter with $1.5 million in the bank. Godlewski had $786,000 on hand, while Nelson had $418,000 in his campaign account.

The Wisconsin Senate race is sure to be one of the most hotly contested in the country. Biden won the Badger State by less than 1 point in 2020. In 2016, Trump also won the state by less than a point. Johnson did outrun the former president that year in winning a second term, defeating former Sen. Russ Feingold in a rematch by 3 points. 

Johnson’s fundraising has lagged behind other incumbent senators this cycle, but he has more cash on hand than his Democratic challengers, reporting $2.3 million in his campaign account as of Sept. 30, according to filings with the FEC. 

He also has leveraged his personal wealth in his past campaigns. 

The former owner of a plastics manufacturing company, Johnson loaned his campaign $340,000 during his 2016 race, and he loaned his campaign $8.9 million in 2010, when he unseated Feingold. His net worth in 2018 was an estimated at $39.2 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Johnson’s success in 2010 came during the tea party wave as Republicans swept into power in Wisconsin. Now, Johnson is the only Republican holding statewide office, and he said in 2019 that his status as “the last man standing” had him reconsidering his pledge to serve just two terms.

Since he joined the Senate in 2011, Johnson has cultivated a reputation as an ardent fiscal conservative who can be a thorn in GOP leadership’s side at times. But he’s also been a loyal Republican vote. 

Johnson supported Trump’s priorities 99 percent of the time, according to CQ Vote Watch, two points above the Senate Republican average of 97 percent.

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