When Sen. Ron Johnson ran for re-election six years ago, the Wisconsin Republican made a public commitment: He believed in term limits, the senator said, and he would not seek a third term.
Six months ago, when Johnson said he was still "undecided" about his political future, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reminded him of his 2016 vow. "When I made that pledge, I meant that pledge," he said last summer.
That was then; this is now. NBC News reported yesterday:
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said Sunday that he has decided to seek a third term, setting up a bitter clash with Democrats in what is expected to be one of the hardest-fought races of 2022.... Johnson, who is known for advancing right-wing conspiracy theories, sought to debunk claims about the 2020 election. He described last year’s deadly riot by Trump supporters at the U.S. Capitol as a “by and large peaceful protest.”
This wasn't necessarily the most obvious outcome. Not only did the GOP senator promise not to run again, but he's also spent the past few years becoming a far-right caricature who's increasingly seen as more of a partisan clown than a serious policymaker. The New York Times noted last March, for example, that the Wisconsin Republican "has become the Republican Party's foremost amplifier of conspiracy theories and disinformation." The editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has said he's "unfit" for office and called him "the most irresponsible representative of Wisconsin citizens since the infamous Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy in the 1950s."
With this in mind, his decision about 2022 was anyone's guess. On the one hand, Johnson didn't appear to be positioning himself for a career as a high-priced lobbyist, but on the other, he also didn't appear to be preparing for a re-election campaign in one of the nation's most competitive states.
He's nevertheless giving the latter a shot.
This is the decision Republican leaders, both on Capitol Hill and in the Badger State, strongly encouraged Johnson to make. There was no great mystery behind the strategy: Incumbents generally stand a better chance of winning re-election, and if the senator had decided to retire, it would've opened the door to a potentially messy primary and a competitive general election.
But what made the senator's announcement especially interesting is that Democrats were even more pleased than their GOP counterparts.
The Democratic position is bolstered by the data: A Marquette Law School Poll survey of Wisconsin voters two months ago found Johnson's favorability rating down to just 36 percent. The same results found only 38 percent of the state's voters intend to support his bid for a third term.
This is likely to be a good year for Republicans, and the senator fared better than expected in both of his earlier races, but those were rough numbers for a two-term incumbent.
What's more, there's no reason to assume Johnson's standing will improve when his critics start reminding voters of his dreadful record on Covid-19. And the Jan. 6 attack. And support for foreign autocrats. And Russian disinformation. And the 2020 presidential election.
In fact, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee wasted no time in releasing a new digital ad yesterday, targeting some of Johnson's vulnerabilities, in a 30-second spot that's already reaching Wisconsinites as part of an initial five-figure advertising campaign. [Update: I've confirmed with the DSCC that the ad will also air on cable television in the Green Bay, La Crosse, Madison, Milwaukee, and Wausau media markets.]
It's no exaggeration to say Johnson is easily the GOP's most endangered Senate incumbent. This race is going to be a doozy.