Charles Franklin: Johnson’s re-election bid solidifies Democratic Senate, Republican gubernatorial fields

MADISON, Wis. — Sen. Ron Johnson announced on Sunday that he will seek re-election this year.

Johnson’s decision to pursue another six-year term in Congress set up what will likely be a high spending race that will be the focus of national attention.

Charles Franklin, the director of the Marquette University Law School, joined News 3 Now to discuss the re-election bid.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

News 3 Now: This race is really going to put Wisconsin in the spotlight for the midterms.

Franklin: It will because with the Senate tied 50-50 right now, this race, along with a couple of open seat races, is going to be at the center of attention for the question of who controls the Senate after next year.

News 3 Now: Johnson was elected in 2010, and he said in 2016 that he would not be seeking a third term in office. Do you think it will matter to voters that he is now walking that back? 

Franklin: I think that in the short term we’re seeing the senator in his new campaign ads out today including an explanation on why he’s changing his mind on this and running again. I’m sure Democrats will point it out that he said he wouldn’t run again. But, you know, there are a lot of things going on in the country that we’re divided over and I think that running for re-election for a third term probably will not be the most important issue come next November.

News 3 Now: A couple of Republicans said they would run for Johnson’s seat, Kevin Nicholson among them, (who is) now hinting that he may run for governor. How big of a shake-up is this for the Republicans? 

Franklin: I think it is… it was not really unexpected. Johnson took an awfully long time to make up his mind and that froze a lot of Republicans in their decisions. With Johnson running and probably not being challenged by a major contender at least, Nicholson has talked a lot about moving to the governor’s race and I don’t think he’s made an announcement but he’s certainly hinted at it. A couple of other people had been mentioned as potentially getting in that race, so I think we’re seeing a shift to the governor’s race for the Republican primary. We already have a crowded Democratic Senate primary, so I think Johnson’s decision has now clarified the fields for both the Republican governor and the Democratic Senate primaries.

News 3 Now: Democrats are expected to face some headwinds in 2022, which is to be expected. The pendulum has a tendency to swing back, history has shown us in the midterm election, but you’ve done some polling about Sen. Ron Johnson’s favorability among Wisconsin’s voters and you did it relatively recently. What did your polling show?

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Franklin: Yes, we were in the field in the very end of October, finishing the polling on October 31, so it’s a little old but not terribly old. Johnson’s favorability ratings are now more unfavorable than favorable for a six-point net negative evaluation. Three years ago, in January of 2019, he was at his all-time high watermark at 16 points more favorable than unfavorable. So over these three years, he’s drifted downward, largely because Democrats have become much more negative, but also [inaudible] … On the other hand, his base of support in the Republican party seems very strong and really has not changed much at all over that period.

News 3 Now: Would that concern a candidate to have those numbers?

Franklin: It would always concern a candidate to be underwater, as we say, at this point. But it’s really important to remember that in late 2015, Johnson was even more underwater than he is now, and of course he came back to beat Russ Feingold in November of 2016. So I think his favorability numbers are worth noting now, but it’s also worth noting that the Johnson campaign reversed those numbers in the 2016 race. Whether he can do that again this year is an open question, but certainly we have the evidence from the past that these numbers can shift.