As Wisconsin's Johnson weighs future, Trump ties take a toll

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Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., speaks during a confirmation hearing for United States Ambassador to the United Nations nominee Linda Thomas-Greenfield before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, in Washington. (Michael Reynolds/Pool via AP)

MADISON, Wis. – After President Donald Trump lost his reelection bid, most Senate Republicans, his Justice Department and the courts dismissed or disputed his baseless claims about a “stolen election." Not Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson.

The GOP senator used his chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security Committee to highlight Trump's allegations, claiming millions of Americans “have real, legitimate suspicions that this election was stolen” and worrying about “so many irregularities here.”

That sort of fealty to Trump has endeared Johnson to the far-right base in his state, but it could prove costly if he decides to seek a third term in 2022. As Johnson weighs whether to run again, his embrace of Trump's anti-democratic campaign to overturn the election results already has angered some mainstream Republican allies, and is poised to motivate Democrats who have ridden opposition to Trump to new strength in the state.

Observers note that Johnson, who rose out of the tea party movement more than a decade ago, has often behaved like a senator from a solidly red state. But November's election demonstrated that Wisconsin, which Democrat Joe Biden won by fewer than 21,000 votes, is anything but. The fight for his seat will be among the most competitive races next year.

“I think if the election were a week from now he would be in a world of hurt,” said Fond du Lac County Republican Party Chair Rohn Bishop. Bishop criticized fellow Republicans like Johnson who parroted claims of illegal election activity, even as he remains a Johnson backer. But he notes that Johnson is at risk of losing moderate voters critical to winning.

"It may hurt him with the suburban voters. ... The election wasn’t stolen, and it’s hard to convince people they should vote for you when you try to throw away their legally cast ballots.”

Johnson has long been aligned with Trump's hard-line policies and politics. He led the push to investigate Biden's son Hunter and rarely broke with the White House. Still, some Republicans were surprised to see the senator lend credence to Trump's post-election schemes, which included an attempt to throw out the ballots of 238,000 voters in the majority-Democratic areas of Milwaukee and Madison.

Johnson's hearing on Dec. 16 to look into unfounded election fraud complaints largely perpetuated Trump’s baseless claims. And on Jan. 6, just before the U.S. Capitol was stormed, Johnson objected to counting the Electoral College votes from Arizona.