Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) has long recognized that the message of the conservative populist movement in his state will never reach people or persuade them in a meaningful way if Republicans don’t run for local offices in Democratic-dominated localities — elected offices that, according to conventional wisdom, Republicans have no business seeking.
“Fielding good candidates to run and getting everyday people to get involved and focus on local elections and be supportive of those candidates has been a big push of mine,” said Johnson in an interview with the Washington Examiner.
Johnson admitted that not every race has a Cinderella ending, even in a wave election cycle that benefits his party. However, he says that is a poor reason not to do it.
“If voters don’t know what your party stands for, and the only information they ever gather comes from the Democrats or the press, then they never really know the possibilities conservatism has to offer them,” he said.
So he initiated a bottom-up plan a couple of years ago to grow the party, and he has never let up since.
It is an effort that intensified after election night in 2018. After eight years of Republican dominance in the Badger State, Johnson suddenly found himself the lone Republican statewide elected officeholder after Gov. Scott Walker narrowly lost to Democrat Tony Evers in his bid for a third term.
The loss of Walker left Johnson with the unofficial responsibility of retaining eight years of gains. This included the passage of Act 10, which limited the power of the state's powerful public employee unions, and electoral gains that saw Republicans take over both the state assembly and the state senate, as well as two congressional seats long held by Democrats.
Some experts expected Wisconsin to drift backward toward the Democrats after 2018. They offered proof of that in 2020, when Joe Biden won the state by 20,000 votes, four years after Donald Trump won it by 23,000 votes.
They pointed to the Democrats' new state party chairman, Ken Wikler, a Twitter influencer, Moveon.org alumnus, and money-raising machine, as the man who could undo the Republican insurgency in the 2022 midterm elections.
The unanswered question is whether Wikler has the voters' pulse on the local issues that matter in down-ballot races — the races that gain state legislative seats.
In last month's nonpartisan spring elections, an unusual number of Republicans ran in localities where the party normally doesn't field candidates or operations. Another highlight was the return of suburban voters to the Republican Party fold in suburban Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington counties. Republicans had struggled in these places after the election of Donald Trump in 2016.
In short, Republicans didn’t win massively, but they won more races than the Democrats did, and they did it just by showing up. Importantly, they brought back the suburban part of the GOP coalition that they need to win statewide elections for governor and Senate. They also flipped seats they’ve never held before.
Of the 800 local races that Republicans targeted in the April 5 Wisconsin elections, 496, or 62% of their candidates, won, explained Johnson. “That is a 300% increase in total number of targeted candidates from last year's spring election, and it's worth mentioning that most of the seats we targeted and lost were in cities or counties Joe Biden won in 2020.”
They also won 78 of the 112 school boards they targeted. They flipped seven county boards, and in Kenosha, Republican Samantha Kerkman became the fifth county executive in Kenosha County history, as well as the first woman and the first Republican to win the seat.
John Folstad is one of those Republican candidates who upended an incumbent Democrat. The retired healthcare professional is now a member of Eau Claire County’s Board of Supervisors.
He credits a good message on transparency with taxpayers' money and a lot of worn shoe leather for his success. “My primary effort for campaigning was doing door to door,” he said in an interview with the Washington Examiner.
He’s optimistic about his chance to govern: “Certainly, I'm hoping to be able to bring some of the things I'm passionate about, like being fiscally conservative as it relates to spending and how we spend the taxpayers' money.”
Racine County, however, was a disappointment to the effort. Republicans won only one of the eight races they targeted.
Still, Johnson said, “we showed up, we told our story, that matters.”
Johnson says the problems voters have told him about in the past year aren’t just bothering them — they are overwhelming them. He cited “inflation, increasing crime, the crisis at the border, education concerns, and the trouble small businesses are having with the supply chain and finding employees to start with."
“The border crisis isn’t just about what is physically happening at border states — it is China's fentanyl being funneled through Mexico, coming on up to our cities, towns, and neighborhoods,” he explained.
The drug overdose epidemic is real, and the impact resonates in families, he added. “And what about the undocumented who are abused or taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers?" he asked. "These are all part of the many problems that are a result of our open border.”
Johnson, who is up for reelection this November, is used to facing tough elections. His first race against then-incumbent liberal Sen. Russ Feingold, who had a notable independent streak that attracted a lot of independent-thinking voters, saw independent voters aligning with the Tea Party movement.
Six years later, Feingold fell again to Johnson in a rematch. The same year, Trump narrowly captured Wisconsin’s electoral votes — a win that marked the first time a Republican presidential candidate had won the state since 1984.
Democrats have lined up to challenge Johnson. Among the candidates are Mandela Barnes, the current lieutenant governor; Alex Lasry, son to a part-owner of the Milwaukee Bucks; Sarah Godlewski, current state treasurer; and Tom Nelson, current Outagamie County executive.
Up to this point, Mandela Barnes has been leading in polling, but a Marquette Law School poll last week showed that 48% of voters haven't made up their minds ahead of the Aug. 9 primary.
Since 2014, Wisconsin has been the heartbeat of the conservative movement. The April elections showed people, if they were paying attention, that the realignment toward Republicans in northern and western Wisconsin is still proceeding apace, even as Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington counties are moving back toward the GOP after a Trump pause.
What does that mean? Well, any plans of Democratic statewide wins this year involve getting Trump-resistant suburbanites to vote Democratic like they did in 2018 and 2020. But if those counties are reverting to their Walker-era Republican form, then Democrats suddenly have a big math problem.
Brad Todd, who co-authored The Great Revolt; Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics with reporter Salena Zito, worked for Ron Johnson in 2010 and part of 2016, leaving the campaign in August of that year.