2022 Wisconsin U.S. Senate Race


 Joe Murray  |    June 14, 2021
Senate Race

On November 8, 2016, incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson defeated former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold in a rematch of the 2010 Senate race in Wisconsin. Johnson‚Äôs 2016 win helped Republicans maintain control of the Senate. Fast-forward six years to 2022 for the upcoming U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin. With the Senate now evenly divided between 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, and Wisconsin‚Äôs status as a classic swing state, the winner in next year‚Äôs election could decide which party controls the U.S. Senate once again. This places Wisconsin in the ‚Äúmust win‚ÄĚ column for Democrats and Republicans as well as a top-tier state in terms of money, staff and organizing from the national parties in 2022.

So far, five Democrats have entered the Senate race, setting up a primary fight for the right to take on Johnson in the November 2022 midterm elections. At least two other prominent Democrats have expressed an interest in getting into the race, even though Johnson has not committed to running for a third term. With a 50-50 U.S. Senate, and Democrats itching to defeat Johnson next year, here are three key factors to watch as the 2022 U.S. Senate race gets underway.  

Johnson’s decision for reelection

Johnson has not committed to running for a third term in 2022. During his last reelection campaign in 2016, Johnson said he was running for his final six-year term. However, in 2019, Johnson started backtracking on his pledge and remains undecided. If Johnson decides to run for a third term, he will have all the benefits of incumbency ‚ÄĒ like name identification and fundraising ability ‚ÄĒ as well as the baggage that comes with 12 years as a U.S. Senator ‚ÄĒ like voting records or verbal miscues. Generally, it‚Äôs easier to hold a seat if the incumbent runs for reelection than if it becomes an open race. Therefore, Johnson‚Äôs decision is a major factor in the election outcome next year.

Fundraising ability

Competitive elections for U.S. Senate seats are incredibly expensive, and the 2022 Wisconsin race will most likely break all the previous Badger State fundraising and spending records. In the 2016 contest, Johnson raised $20.3 million, and Feingold raised $24.5 million. As a former U.S. Senator, Feingold was able to raise more than the average challenger.

In the 2020 U.S. Senate elections around the country, the average raised by incumbents was $28.6 million; for challengers, the average was $5.2 million. As noted, the Wisconsin U.S. Senate race will be a top target for Democrats as President Joe Biden carried Wisconsin in 2020. This will drive even more money into the race from all over the country. 

‚ÄúIf you think you‚Äôve seen a lot of spending in past elections, prepare to be dumbfounded. This will be by far the most expensive campaign in state history,‚ÄĚ Democratic consultant Joe Zepecki told Urban Milwaukee.¬†

If Johnson decides to run again, his status as a two-term incumbent will help him raise the kind of money necessary to compete in a top-tier election.

Biden midterm 

Midterm elections are almost always referenda on the sitting president. ‚ÄúIn the post-World War II era, the party holding the White House has averaged losses of three Senate and 22 House seats,‚ÄĚ says Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report. In fact, midterm elections when one party controls the White House and both houses of Congress have been especially difficult for the party in power.¬†

In 1994, former President Bill Clinton’s first midterm election, Democrats lost both houses of Congress; in 2006, Republicans lost both houses of Congress in former President George W. Bush’s second midterm; in 2010, former President Barack Obama lost the House in his first midterm and the Senate in his second midterm in 2014; and in 2018, Republicans lost the House during former President Donald Trump’s only midterm election as a one-term president.

If past election cycles are a reliable indicator, Johnson should have the political winds at his back. Given Wisconsin’s demographics and status as a political swing state, Republicans appear to be in excellent territory for achieving their goal of regaining power in 2022. In short, Biden’s win in 2020 could be a real benefit to Johnson if he runs as well as any Republican nominee.

WI US Senate Race insert image

Prognosticators

With 17 months to go before the November 2022 midterm elections, political prognosticators could easily change their opinions on which candidate or political party is leading. As of today, the nation‚Äôs top three political prognosticators ‚ÄĒ the Cook Political Report, Sabato‚Äôs Crystal Ball and Inside Elections ‚ÄĒ have Johnson a slight favorite for reelection next year.

While history may be on Johnson’s side, Democrats believe Johnson’s fidelity to Trump as well as Johnson’s continual questioning of the 2020 presidential election outcome makes Johnson vulnerable in 2022. Stay tuned!

Joe Murray is Director of Political and Governmental Affairs for the WRA.

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