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Wisconsin’s Johnson hedges on accepting possible election defeat

Ron Johnson "hopes" he can accept the results of his re-election bid in Wisconsin. For those who take democracy seriously, that's not much of an answer.


Sen. Ron Johnson has long been seen as one of this year’s most vulnerable Republican incumbents. The Wisconsin senator has struggled for years to become a serious policymaker, and he’s the only GOP incumbent this year to be running in a state where President Joe Biden won in 2020. Given the circumstances, and his poor approval rating, Johnson would appear to have a problem.

At least, that is, in theory. Despite his ignominious record, Johnson’s odds of winning a third term keep improving, as a barrage of well-financed attack ads weaken support for Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes. According to the FiveThirtyEight forecast, the Republican had a 51% chance of winning as of a few weeks ago. Today, that figure stands at 66%.

But what if Johnson ends up losing anyway? What if the two-term incumbent’s record catches up with him and Wisconsin voters decide to make a change? Will Johnson concede? The Wisconsin State Journal reported over the weekend:

To the Democrats at the top of the ticket this November, the answer is simple: Win or lose, Gov. Tony Evers and U.S. Senate candidate Mandela Barnes say, they will accept the results. But for their Republican opponents — Tim Michels and Ron Johnson — the question is more fraught, with neither willing to say unconditionally whether he would agree to the outcome once the results are certified.

Asked if the senator would concede in the event of a defeat, a campaign spokesperson for Johnson said, “It is certainly his hope that he can.”

That’s not much of an answer. As Republican antipathy toward democracy intensifies, a senator should be able to do more than just hope that he can accept election results.

Johnson’s campaign spokesperson added that the uncertain response is the result of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers rejecting anti-voting measures approved by Wisconsin Republicans.

As for the Badger State’s gubernatorial race, Evers’ GOP challenger is approaching the elections from a similar perspective. Michels — who has said the 2020 election was “maybe” stolen and that he would consider decertifying the 2020 results if elected — added unnecessary qualifiers when the Wisconsin State Journal asked the Republican about honoring the 2022 results.

Michels’ spokesperson said Friday that he would accept the will of the voters, “provided the election is conducted fairly and securely.”

And who gets to decide whether the election results meet Michels’ standards for fairness and security? Presumably Michels does.

As regular readers know, 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 a new normal for Republican politics. 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. Of course its 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.”

Complicating matters, politicians like Johnson are echoing the sentiments of GOP voters: My MSNBC colleague Ja’han Jones noted the latest poll conducted by Yahoo News and YouGov, in which fewer than half of Republican voters said candidates who receive fewer votes should concede.

In a recent analysis on threats to our democracy, the 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.”

It’s amazing to see just how many in the GOP are proving him right.