Despite his record, Sen. Ron Johnson has reason to be optimistic about re-election chances. According to FiveThirtyEight’s forecast, as recently as mid-September, the Wisconsin Republican had a 51% chance of winning a third term. Today, as voters prepare to overlook his many controversies, conspiracy theories, and thin legislative record, Johnson’s odds are up to 80%.
With this in mind, the ignominious GOP incumbent — Stephen Colbert described Johnson as “the dumbest person ever to sit in the United States Senate” — is probably feeling pretty good about his electoral future. As The Washington Post noted, however, he’s still not quite prepared to commit to honoring the election results.
Sen. Ron Johnson said Tuesday that he’s uncertain about whether he’ll accept the results of the 2022 midterm elections which will be held next week. “We’ll see what happens,” Johnson said Tuesday evening at a brief stop on his bus tour that included stops in small towns in southwestern Wisconsin. “I mean, is something going to happen on Election Day? Do Democrats have something up their sleeves?”
To a frustrating degree, the senator’s response was emblematic of Johnson’s flaws as a policymaker: The incumbent made it sound as if election conspiracy theories have merit. As he really ought to understand by now, they do not. But because Johnson is a little too fond of far-right misinformation, his instinct was to hedge rather than commit to accepting voters’ will, while effectively urging the public to question the integrity of election results in which Democrats win.
This dovetailed with the line offered by one of the senator’s spokespersons a month ago, who said Johnson “hoped“ to believe the results of the election. It wasn’t much of an answer. (His challenger, Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, has committed to accepting the outcome.)
But circling back to our recent coverage, just as important as the Wisconsin incumbent’s position is the degree to which it reflects a radical new normal in Republican politics.
It was in September 2020 when Donald Trump first balked publicly at the idea of a peaceful transfer of power. What we didn’t fully realize at the time was that he was helping create new standards for his party. The Washington Post recently published a report on a dozen Republican candidates in competitive races for governor and Senate declining to say whether they would accept the legitimacy of the upcoming results.
The New York Times did the same thing, asking nominees for governor and the Senate in midterm battlegrounds whether they would commit to accepting this year’s election results. The results were similar: Most Republicans either wouldn’t answer or wouldn’t make such a commitment, while Democratic candidates said they would respect the results, win or lose.
We used to be a country in which questions like these weren’t even asked. As we’ve discussed, it was a foregone conclusion for generations: The United States was a stable democracy, and the world’s pre-eminent superpower. There was no real need to wonder: American candidates for powerful offices agreed to honor election results. The entire line of inquiry was unnecessary since the answers were assumed.
Now, as the radicalization of Republican politics intensifies, it’s no longer considered outlandish to ask GOP candidates whether they’ll accept voters’ judgment — and it’s no longer surprising when Republicans fail to say “yes.”
Indeed, note that Johnson’s comments yesterday did not immediately generate widespread coverage. In the not-too-distant past, it would’ve seemed outlandish for a sitting senator to suggest he might reject the legitimacy of his own state’s elections because of conspiracy theories he couldn’t substantiate.
In 2022, however, this is just something Republicans do.
A couple of months ago, as part of an analysis on threats to our democracy, The New York Times’ David Leonhardt explained, “The first threat is acute: a growing movement inside one of the country’s two major parties — the Republican Party — to refuse to accept defeat in an election.”
Folks like Johnson continue to prove him right.