Ron John­son car­ries the GOP man­tle in Wis­con­sin

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - OP-ED - Salena Zito Salena Zito is a CNN po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst, and a staff re­porter and colum­nist for the Washington Ex­am­iner. Con­tact her at [email protected]­ © 2019, Cre­

There is an irony in the fact that Ron John­son is the guy who will carry the man­tle for the Repub­li­can Party in Wis­con­sin. Even he ad­mits that.

“I kind of sprang out of the tea party move­ment and was sort of a grass­roots guy,” says Sen. John­son about his en­try into pol­i­tics a decade ago. “First pub­lic speech I’d ever given was in Oc­to­ber 2009. And peo­ple came up to me af­ter­wards and said, ‘Hey, I liked your speech. Why don’t you run for of­fice?’ My re­ply was al­ways pretty con­sis­tent. I said, ‘Be­cause I’m not crazy.’ Then, they passed Oba­macare, and I started think­ing about it.”

He en­tered the Se­nate race, got en­dorse­ments from the grass­roots and es­tab­lish­ment, and car­ried the nom­i­na­tion.

Six months later, he was part of a per­co­lat­ing pop­ulist con­ser­va­tive move­ment that swept the Democrats out of power in the for­merly blue state. John­son un­seated Demo­cratic Sen. Russ Fein­gold, and Scott Walker took the gov­er­nor­ship from the Democrats, while Repub­li­cans took con­trol of both the state As­sem­bly and Se­nate, held the state at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice, swung the state trea­surer’s of­fice, and took two con­gres­sional seats long held by Democrats.

Not long af­ter, Janesville Rep. Paul Ryan would be named chair­man of the House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee and then be­come the vice pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee.

Wis­con­sin GOP Chair­man Reince Priebus would be­come chair­man of the na­tional Repub­li­can Party.

Fol­low­ing the 2010 elec­tion, Wis­con­sin’s GOP was the beat­ing heart of the na­tional GOP.

Now al­most a decade later, Walker lost his bid for a third term last Novem­ber; Ryan, who rose to speaker of the House, is now leav­ing Congress; and Priebus has been chased out of Trump’s White House.

That leaves one guy stand­ing to steer the Mid­west con­ser­va­tive move­ment back into power — or at least be the face of it. That guy is John­son.

He says of the 2018 midterms: “I went to bed on elec­tion night . ... Scott Walker was pulling ahead and just had the out coun­ties, which we nor­mally win. So, I was pretty con­fi­dent he was go­ing to win, kind of breathed a sigh of relief, never went to sleep. But I got a text. It was called ... for his op­po­nent. One of my first thoughts was, other than the ex­ple­tive, was ‘I am last man stand­ing.’ And I have a unique re­spon­si­bil­ity, which I take se­ri­ously.”

John­son says he has Priebus giv­ing him ad­vice on how to re­assess the way for­ward.

He ex­plained: “The post­mortem is that I’m mak­ing calls all the time, and we have a pretty ro­bust ef­fort right now. But the feed­back is pretty con­sis­tent. The cam­paigns were very top­down, and they weren’t lis­ten­ing to peo­ple. ”

His plan to re-en­er­gize the grass­roots ef­fort be­gan with him call­ing the county chair­men in the state. “It is im­por­tant to en­gage them early and of­ten dur­ing this process,” he says.

“The in­put is so con­sis­tent from what we need to do. I keep re­fer­ring to it as trickle-up elec­tions. Rather than top-down, all sen­a­tors talk about one per­son. I mean, we need to re­turn to the Repub­li­can Party of Wis­con­sin and a party that sup­ports all Repub­li­can can­di­dates and helps re­cruit can­di­dates but sup­ports them in all lev­els, lo­cal, county.”

John­son says Wis­con­sin has al­ways been the ro­bust epi­cen­ter of the mod­ern pop­ulist con­ser­va­tive move­ment be­cause the es­tab­lish­ment, the tea party, and talk ra­dio have al­ways avoided the GOP civil wars that have plagued the na­tional scene. John­son not only gets that; he is bank­ing on it.

His crit­i­cal test will be the state Supreme Court race in April 2020.

Seven months af­ter that first test comes the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. John­son strikes you as the guy who doesn’t want to be the ac­ci­den­tal leader of a move­ment who loses the big game.

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