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What's next for Wisconsin Republicans? Ron Johnson holds the key

NBC News logo NBC News 2/28/2021 Henry J. Gomez
Ron Johnson wearing a suit and tie © Provided by NBC News

Wisconsin Republicans are preparing for life after Donald Trump and, potentially, for life after one of the former president’s staunchest allies, Sen. Ron Johnson.

Johnson, who previously flip-flopped on a pledge to serve only two terms, has yet to say if he’ll seek a third in 2022.

The uncertainty weighs heavily over a state party transitioning from its glory days to a post-Trump era. Paul Ryan, the former vice presidential nominee and speaker of the House, decamped to the private sector in 2018. Scott Walker, whose fight with public-employee unions made him a hero on the right, joined him there after losing a bid for a third term as governor.

And though Wisconsin helped send Trump to the White House in 2016 by backing a Republican for president for the first time since 1984, the state narrowly swung back to Democrats and Joe Biden in 2020.

Johnson is the only Republican left from the so-called Cheesehead Revolution of the 2010s. At least one other figure from that period, Reince Priebus, could be a factor in statewide races next year. Priebus, a Kenosha native and former Republican National Committee chairman, whom Trump fired dramatically after six months as his first chief of staff, has recently signaled interest in running for governor. But GOP leaders also see an opportunity to develop a new generation of conservative talent that could potentially reach national heights.

“That was certainly an exciting decade, and those guys are all great leaders,” said Andrew Hitt, the chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party. “We have a lot of people coming up through the ranks. … We have a deep bench and a good farm team. So I think we’re going to continue to see leaders being produced here in Wisconsin that have outsized roles in the country.”

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Hitt and others are eagerly awaiting Johnson’s decision. A Johnson spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. Others close to Johnson declined to hazard a guess on the record.

“No one knows what he’s going to do,” said Brandon Scholz, a veteran Republican consultant in Wisconsin. “Right now, that’s a huge one.”

If Johnson runs again, other Republicans with statewide ambitions could pile into the party's primary for governor, where former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch is an early front-runner, thanks to political chits she’s collected and an aggressive organization she’s built since leaving office more than two years ago. A former TV news anchor in Milwaukee, Kleefisch this week launched a series of paid advertisements — designed as conservative commentary — on local radio through her nonprofit advocacy group, the 1848 Project.

Kleefisch also enjoys an essential early endorsement from Walker, who told the Milwaukee Press Club in 2019 that he thinks she would win and would be a “hell of a great governor.”

“Rebecca Kleefisch has spent an inordinate amount of time traveling the state, working with the Republican Party to help recruit candidates and being at multiple Republican Party events,” Scholz said. “She’s done a good job maintaining her contacts in the event she runs.”

If Johnson retires, given Kleefisch’s head start in the gubernatorial race, the Senate primary could become a free-for-all and perhaps the more logical landing place for Priebus. Mentioned less these days is a third possibility that Johnson has floated in the past: running for governor.

"Ron Johnson will make a decision on what he’s going to do next. Once we know more about that, I’ll be running for the U.S. Senate or governor in 2022,” Kevin Nicholson, who lost the Republican Senate primary in 2018 and has kept active in conservative causes with his own nonprofit, said in a statement. “Our country is facing massive challenges now, this isn’t the time to sit on the sideline, and the politics and people of yesterday aren’t going to win future elections and get our country back on track.”

Wisconsin Republicans who are clued into Priebus’s 2022 thoughts tempered expectations by noting that he did not proceed with previous rumored campaigns for office and that he is now based in Washington, hardly an ideal place to launch a bid for governor. Some see the Senate race, absent Johnson, as more plausible, especially if Priebus’s reportedly mended relationship with Trump might yield an endorsement. Priebus did not respond to a request for comment.

Johnson is one of Trump’s most ardent defenders. As chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, he indulged Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen. And in a recent radio interview, Johnson said the deadly Jan. 6 riot that Trump supporters led on the Capitol to block certification of the election results “didn’t seem like an armed insurrection to me.”

It’s difficult to assess who besides Priebus or Johnson might draw Trump into the race with an endorsement or disruptive presence. In past elections it was good enough to be closely aligned with Ryan or Walker.

Nicholson attempted to paint his 2018 opponent, Leah Vukmir, as insufficiently loyal to Trump but the then-president stayed out of the primary, which Vukmir won (she lost the general election to Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat). Kleefisch, whose team declined to comment, campaigned for Trump’s re-election in 2020. She told the Cap Times of Madison last month, though, that emphasis on Trump is too simplified and that the party is focused “not [on] everyone’s individual opinions of one man, but our collective strength, which is the belief in less government, better value and responsiveness, good schools, growing wages.”

Wisconsin Republicans who spoke to NBC News said they aren’t sure they will see the same level of pro-Trump posturing already occurring in states such as Ohio. Several noted that former congressman Sean Duffy, a prominent Trump defender with a background in reality TV, as someone who could procure an endorsement if he ran for governor or Senate. But some also mentioned Rep. Mike Gallagher, who has said Trump “bears responsibility” for the Jan. 6 riot, as a viable prospect.

“I think that with certain constituencies, that's going to be a predominant question, but it doesn’t seem to be a predominant question over the entire electorate or over the entire Republican electorate,” Hitt said of the Trump factor. “When I talk to people, when I travel around, I’m not hearing that type of ‘Well, I hear so-and-so is going to get in, but were they for the president enough?’”

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Biden beat Trump in Wisconsin by about 20,600 votes, or 0.6 percentage points. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers unseated Walker in a close 2018 race, decided by about 29,000 votes. Johnson won his 2016 rematch with former Sen. Russ Feingold by about 3 points.

Wisconsin “has been a very close, purple state for a long time now,” Hitt said. He noted that last fall, in the western Wisconsin congressional district represented by Democrat Ron Kind, he saw yards with signs promoting both Trump and Kind. “We have a lot of voters who are split-ticket voters.”

Democrats are preparing for 2022 while waiting for Evers to announce his re-election plans. The Democratic Senate primary, meanwhile, has begun to take shape as if Johnson, a top target for the national party, is running. Among the Democrats already running for the seat are Alex Lasry, a senior vice president for the Milwaukee Bucks, and Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson. Kind and state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski are also considering bids, The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported Friday.

“It’s pretty clear that fealty to Trump is going to be a central factor in primaries that helps Republicans and a central factor in general elections that hurts Republicans,” said Ben Wikler, chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. “How potential Republican nominees dance through that minefield is a mystery to behold.”

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