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In Pivot to Messaging, Ron Johnson Looks to Purge Staff

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo

Freshman GOP Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.) is looking to purge nearly his entire Washington, D.C.-based legislative team, according to multiple Republican sources familiar with the situation.

Johnson’s frustration with his legislative staff has been one of the worst-kept secrets in Washington for months, those close to Republican Conference politics said.

But the situation in Johnson’s office has escalated in recent weeks. The top brass of the Senate Republican Steering Committee — the Conference’s conservative hub — have connected at least one Johnson legislative aide with another GOP Senate office, and sources indicated they may be helping others find jobs before they are asked to permanently clear their desks.

The executive director for the committee declined to comment on this story.

The Wisconsin Senator said recently that he would like to refocus his efforts on political messaging, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has asked him to help coordinate strategy with the eventual GOP presidential nominee.

In an interview with Roll Call last week, Johnson denied that there would be significant changes to his staff, but senior Republican aides outside his office disputed this claim. Again today, Johnson’s office reiterated the Wisconsin Senator’s previous statements denying the imminent departures.

While top Republican sources expressed exasperation at the internal turmoil in Johnson’s office, they also noted that the Wisconsin freshman has not been diligent in building relationships with other Senators within the Conference and has alienated himself by not reaching out more frequently to colleagues.

“He’s an interesting case study of someone who has talked more than he has listened, lectured more than he has developed relationships with his colleagues, and now he’s having a tough time because of that behavior in advancing his policy goals,” one senior GOP aide said. “It’s kind of like watching a temper tantrum by a 2-year-old in the middle of the grocery store.”

“The Senate is still about relationships, and he doesn’t seem to get that,” the aide continued.

But Johnson’s office noted that he only narrowly lost his attempt to join the ranks of GOP leadership when he ran against Sen. Roy Blunt for the Conference vice chairman position earlier this year.

“Senator Johnson received 22 votes in his leadership bid - from all parts of the Republican Conference. This serves as testament to his ability to build such relationships,” a Johnson spokesman said via email.

Though Johnson has only been in the Senate for 14 months, sources said, his behavior now could have lasting effects on his influence in Washington, given exiting staffers will likely carry stories of their tribulations elsewhere. He could also be creating political jeopardy for himself in Wisconsin by pivoting so publicly to a focus on political messaging at a time when public opinion of Congress is so low.

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