Could Ron Johnson Be the Next Republican Leader in the Senate? He Isn’t Saying No.

Experts say it’s unlikely, but “nothing seems totally out of the question” amid the uncertainty of the Republican party

by PETER CAMERON, The Badger Project

When Sen. Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the longest-serving Senate leader in history, announced he would vacate that position starting in November, the jostling for the top spot began.

Sen. Ron Johnson, in his third six-year term representing Wisconsin, is not currently in the six-member Republican Senate leadership team. On Monday, The Badger Project asked Johnson’s office if he would seek the top spot, and his spokeswoman, Kiersten Pels, said this in an email:

“Currently, Senator Johnson is attempting to lead a process to develop a consensus on what the (Senate Republican) mission is, what principles will guide it, and what goals are achievable. In other words, what (do Senate Republicans) stand for and what will members fight for? He is hoping leaders will emerge from that process.”

She also didn’t say no. 

Johnson has refused to publicly say no to the question at least one other time. But if he wants it, securing the top spot will be difficult for Johnson, experts say.

“I don’t think that this is very likely,” said Joseph Heim, a political science professor emeritus at UW-La Crosse in an email. “He has not shown significant leadership skills and the ability to persuade others. He seems more like a loner than a leader.”

Joseph Heim, a professor emeritus of political science at UW-La Crosse. Photo courtesy of The Badger Project.

Johnson’s handling of things like the “fake elector” issue could also cause him problems, Heim noted.

An attorney for then-President Donald Trump gave Johnson paperwork in early 2020 from fake electors in Wisconsin in an attempt by Trump to falsely declare he won the state. Johnson was asked to give the paperwork to Vice President Mike Pence before his ceremonial duty to certify the election on Jan. 6.

Despite evidence to the contrary, Johnson has denied he knew what was in the packet.

Johnson “has become an influential voice in his party because of his outspoken nature and eagerness to weigh in on issues even when his position is unpopular,” said Barry Burden, a UW-Madison political science professor and the director of the Elections Research Center there, in an email.

Barry Burden, professor in the Department of Political Science and director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is pictured on Feb. 24, 2017. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)

“But Johnson is unlikely to become party leader because he has not developed a network of trusting relationships with his colleagues,” Burden continued. “Although fellow Republicans often appreciate his bold critiques of Democrats and other authority figures, Johnson has not shown himself to be a coalition builder who carefully attends to the concerns of his Senate colleagues. He tends to oppose measures that are moving forward rather than finding ways to bring them to fruition.”

On a recent appearance on the right-wing cable channel Real America’s Voice, he gave his opinion on the direction of the GOP.

“You hear Republicans say, ‘We need to get a result. We need to effectively govern.’ To me, that’s almost code words for ‘We got to do Democrat-lite,’” he said. “I think we’d be far better off if we never passed another piece of legislation.”

Johnson’s net worth is estimated at $39 million, according to Open Secrets.

Currently in the minority in the Senate, Republicans have a favorable map in the 2024 election and could take back the majority. That makes the top leadership position even more enticing.

Both the majority and minority leaders in the Senate “serve as the spokesperson for their party’s positions on the issues and coordinate their respective legislative strategies,” according to the U.S. Senate website. They also must, of course, fundraise.

Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the number-two Republican in the Senate behind McConnell, has announced his candidacy for leader, as has Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.

Sen. Rick Scott of Florida unsuccessfully challenged McConnell last year for his spot. The former governor has not announced whether he will seek the position yet.

While leaving his leadership role, McConnell says he will complete his term in the Senate, which ends in 2026.

To have a chance of winning an election among Republican senators for the top leadership spot, Johnson “would also need to commit to being a more active fundraiser to generate financial support for Republican senatorial candidates in a way he has not done in the past,” Burden said.

Heim noted that “no one seems to be a clear favorite, somewhat a similar situation that House Republicans faced after they ousted McCarthy.”

“So nothing seems totally out of the question,” he said.

This story is republished with permission from The Badger Project, a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.