Ron Johnson is not a Wisconsin Republican. He’s a Trump Republican, and he couldn't care less about what Wisconsin Republicans think, or about the future of their party. That was obvious in the scandal-plagued senator’s decision of where to announce his reelection run: on the opinion pages of New York City-based Wall Street Journal.
For Democrats who desperately want to beat Johnson, the incumbent’s disregard for his own state and his party’s historic traditions will be one more talking point on the long list of arguments for replacing a political careerist who has become known nationally as the U.S. Capitol’s primary purveyor of conspiracy theories about the coronavirus pandemic.
But for Wisconsin Republicans who retain even the barest measure of self-respect — a dwindling circle but one that we would argue still exists — the idea of tying their party’s future to a delusional huckster who recommends fighting COVID-19 with Listerine should be deeply unsettling.
The Republican Party, not just in Wisconsin but nationally, traces its roots to the college town of Ripon. It was there, 168 years ago this winter, that a gathering of anti-slavery campaigners, land reformers and utopian socialists forged a replacement for the dying Whig Party. The new party was a visionary movement at the start, and a force for good through much of its history. This newspaper was founded in 1917 by a Republican state legislator, William T. Evjue, in order to support the progressive politics of Republican U.S. Sen. Robert M. La Follette.
We’ve fought for many decades to slow the drift of the Grand Old Party toward the sort of right-wing extremism, racism and xenophobia that was anathema to its founders. In the 1940s and 1950s, The Capital Times was the loudest voice of opposition to the state’s most venomous Republican U.S. senator of the era, Joseph McCarthy. But ours was not a lonely voice. There were many Republicans who opposed McCarthy, and we supported them.
We believed then, and we believe now, that reactionaries in both major parties need to be confronted with robust primary challenges. Even if the challenges are unsuccessful — as was the case with Leonard Schmitt, the Merrill attorney who The Capital Times backed when he bravely took on McCarthy in 1952 — they matter. Though McCarthy prevailed in that primary, Schmitt’s bid helped lay the groundwork for the bipartisan “Joe Must Go!” movement, and for the eventual project of restoring honor to the Republican brand.
That restoration would eventually produce honorable Republican nominees and elected officials such as Wilbur Renk, Warren Knowles, Bill Steiger, Tom Petri, Lee Sherman Dreyfus and Susan Shannon Engeleiter. It would influence rational conservatives such as Tommy Thompson to build a big-tent Republican Party that, for a time in the mid-1990s, looked like it might swing the historic battleground state of Wisconsin solidly into the GOP column.
Thompson offered Wisconsin Republicans a vision for creating a mainstream party that sought to win not just its traditional heartlands in rural and suburban regions of the state but that made a serious effort to win Black and Hispanic votes in Milwaukee, and that worked well for Democratic mayors and the state’s labor unions. In one of his reelection runs, he even carried the Democratic strongholds of Milwaukee and Dane counties.
After Thompson left, Republican insiders gave up on that vision and chose the narrower and more divisive path chartered by defeated former Gov. Scott Walker and his 2010 ticket mate, Ron Johnson. In recent years, Wisconsin’s GOP candidates have lost statewide races for the U.S. Senate, governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, state treasurer and secretary of state. And their favored candidates have lost a number of officially nonpartisan contests for state Supreme Court seats.
Today, the GOP is left with only one statewide office holder: Johnson. And he serves as little more than a placeholder for his chief benefactor, defeated former President Donald Trump.
Johnson announced his 2022 reelection run with an assumption that he would be the party’s nominee, and certainly the party establishment is rallying behind his candidacy, as it did with Joe McCarthy in 1952. But grassroots Republicans, the people who care about the party’s history and its potential as something more than a cabal of coronavirus conspiracy theorists and anti-democratic authoritarians, should be looking for a primary challenger to Johnson.
We’re not naïve. We don’t imagine that dislodging Johnson in his own party’s primary is a likely prospect. But we do believe that he should be challenged, sincerely and aggressively.
Of course the Democrats will offer an alternative to Johnson in November. They have many fine prospects, including Lt. Gov. Mandala Barnes, state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, activist Steven Olikara and Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry.
But a serious GOP primary challenger to Johnson in August could do what the Democrats cannot: detail how out of sync this senator is with historic Republican values and how damaging he is to the party’s long-term prospects as a useful force in Wisconsin politics. By confronting and exposing the incumbent as the charlatan he is, such a challenge could lay the groundwork for the slow but necessary restoration of the honor of the Grand Old Party, which has been so severely damaged by political grifters such as Ron Johnson. ￼
Editorial, Wisconsin Cap Times, Jan. 12, 2022
January 16, 2022
Voices4America Post Script. One week ago, Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, one of Trump’s most extreme lackeys, announced he would run for a third term. His state’s major newspaper responded, calling him as “a virus that infects” the state’s GOP, asking for him to face a serious Republican challenger in his re-election bid. #StopRonJohnson #StopTrump #KeeptheSenateBlue