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US Sen. Ron Johnson on a potential run for a third term next year

US Sen. Ron Johnson talks about a potential run for a third term next year.

Angela Peterson, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MILWAUKEE – U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson said Sunday he’s running for re-election, breaking a campaign pledge to serve only two terms yet determined to keep the seat in Republican hands and sway the balance of political power in Washington during the 2022 midterms.

Johnson revealed his decision in a two paragraph statement and larger opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal.

“I believe America is in peril,” Johnson wrote in the opinion piece. “Much as I’d like to ease into a quiet retirement, I don’t feel I should.”

He acknowledged making his two-term pledge during the 2016 campaign but said he and his wife Jane didn’t anticipate “the Democrats’ complete takeover of government and the disastrous policies they have inflicted on America and the world, to say nothing of those they threaten to enact in the future.”

Johnson, who has drawn flak for his comments about COVID-19 and sown doubt about mass vaccinations, also cited what he called the “government’s failed response” to the pandemic in his decision to run.

Johnson said he will “continue to fight for freedom in the public realm by running for re-election. It is not a decision I have made lightly. Having already experienced a growing level of vitriol and false attacks, I certainly don’t expect better treatment in the future.”

With Johnson’s emergence in recent years as a vocal ally of former President Donald Trump, a large field of Democrats is assembled and eager to take him on in the fall.

“The only people celebrating Ron Johnson’s announcement are his donors and the corporate special interest groups he’s bailed out time and time again,” said Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who is among four leading candidates in the Democratic race. “Let’s get to work and retire this failed senator.”

Backlash over COVID, Jan. 6 comments

For months, Johnson weighed the decision to go for a third term, even as he often found himself entangled in two searing national episodes: the fallout from the 2020 presidential election and the struggle to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

Johnson argued the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, was not an armed insurrection. Later, he was pilloried for saying that Donald Trump’s supporters who were at the Capitol didn’t worry him but that he might have been concerned if they had been supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement.

He has been a lightning rod for his comments related to COVID-19, including his promotion of early treatments to deal with the virus while also raising questions about the COVID-19 vaccine.

In recent days, he has doubled down in sowing doubt over the efficacy of the vaccines, to the consternation of health officials.  

More: Bice: U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson’s 10 most controversial statements of 2021

Pledged to serve 2 terms

Johnson, an Oshkosh manufacturer, first ran for the U.S. Senate in 2010 as part of a wave of tea party candidates emboldened to push back against then-President Barack Obama and the Democrats.

With the political wind at his back, he defeated Democratic U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold.

“The folks I see at those rallies are hardworking, patriotic, tax-paying Americans who are every bit as concerned about what is happening to this country as I am,” Johnson said in 2010.

Johnson vowed to work as a “citizen-legislator,” and made a promise toward the end of his second campaign in 2016 to serve only two terms.

He put $9 million of his own money in the 2010 race and then shortly before joining the Senate, was paid $10 million in deferred compensation by his plastics company. Pacur. He later sold his stake in the company in 2020.

In 2016, Johnson defeated Feingold in a rematch.

During much of the 2016 campaign, Johnson trailed in the polls. By August he was off the air, a troubling sign in a modern race. Johnson outlined a new ad strategy with his older brother Dean, co-host and executive producer of the PBS series “Hometime,” and he caught fire down the stretch.

Johnson said if he was re-elected he would only serve two terms.

In the end, Johnson ran ahead of Trump, not only saving his Senate seat but helping deliver the White House to the Republicans.

On the night of his election victory in 2016, Johnson told supporters, “I believe America has given us a chance, an opportunity to put this nation on the right path. It’s exactly what I intend to do.”

During his second term, Johnson secured what may be his signature legislative accomplishment, so-called right-to-try legislation to allow terminally ill patients to receive experimental drugs not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Johnson also promoted a key provision of a 2017 tax-cut bill, successfully pushing for a tax break for small businesses and other so-called pass-through entities.

Pro Publica reported that Johnson’s provision benefited wealthy Americans, including two of the biggest forces in Republican politics in Wisconsin and nationally.

Johnson said his support for “pass-through” entities “was guided by the necessity to keep them competitive with large publicly held ‘C-corporations’ and had nothing to do with any donor or discussions with them.” 

Johnson’s seat considered vulnerable

As one of the most conservative members of the Senate, Johnson has served since 2013 alongside Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin, one of the Senate’s most liberal members. Together they constitute what is easily the oddest “odd couple” in the Senate. Their voting records are more dissimilar than any other pair of senators from the same state. 

In the two most recent statewide polls by the Marquette Law School, Johnson’s received some of the poorest ratings of his career: 36% of registered voters viewed him favorably (in the two polls combined) while 42% viewed him unfavorably. 

Going into the 2022 midterms, Johnson has been generally viewed in Washington as the most vulnerable senator facing re-election, certainly the most vulnerable Republican. 

More: The fight over Ron Johnson’s US Senate seat will put Wisconsin back in the national spotlight in 2022

But he also stood to benefit from a difficult political climate for Democrats, reflected in President Joe Biden’s poor approval ratings.  In fact, senators from the party out of power (i.e., the party opposed to the sitting president) have only lost one general election in Wisconsin in more than a century. 

Journal Sentinel reporter Craig Gilbert contributed.