Sen. Ron Johnson is entering his second Senate term as something of a free agent.
Other than Sen. Mark S. Kirk in neighboring Illinois who lost his re-election bid, the Wisconsin Republican was the incumbent most of the GOP establishment had written off as a lost cause. Polls, as late as October, found Johnson’s opponent, former Sen. Russ Feingold, up by as much as a dozen points. And while campaign money did pour in late, Johnson seemed to spend much of the cycle in the wilderness.
Johnson said his own sense about Wisconsin never really lined up with the polls.
The 61-year-old manufacturing company owner said his campaign was making decisions more based on what he called “my own one-man focus group as I traveled around the state tirelessly,” than on advisers in Washington. “It was just a very satisfying win because it was just based on local Wisconsinites, which was kind of cool,” he said.
Johnson was a businessman-political novice when he first came to the Senate, not unlike President-elect Donald Trump. With no plans to run again, he intends to work with the new administration as a willing deal-maker who’s perhaps less ambivalent than some of his colleagues.
Johnson, the chairman of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, is willing to work inside or outside the committee process to help advance the Trump agenda and undo what he sees as damage caused by the Obama administration. Efforts to scale back the federal workforce or streamline regulatory structures would fall within the “governmental affairs” portfolio of his committee.
In his campaign, outside advisers urged Johnson to get on TV and spend big early in response to Feingold’s fundraising and TV ads that aired in April.
A person familiar with the campaign’s strategy, though, said the campaign itself wanted to save cash for late in the campaign, thinking that Feingold might be more vulnerable then. Johnson was able to outspend the Democrat for the stretch, when national money began to arrive.
“In general, consultants use a cookie-cutter approach. The types of ads they design, you can insert candidate A into slot B and think that’s messaging. It’s not. I think these things are far more local,” Johnson said. “I don’t think you can be a D.C. consultant and understand truthfully what’s going to be a winning message in a state like Wisconsin or maybe any state.”
He praised Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus for his work at the helm of the state GOP in Wisconsin, and the efforts of House members including Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Jim Sensenbrenner, for work in their home districts.
He would not speculate about what his victory — and Trump carrying the Badger State — could mean for the 2018 midterms, when Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin will be on the ballot.
A kindred spirit
Johnson, who has already pledged not to seek a third Senate term, is looking forward to working with Trump, whom he sees as something of a kindred spirit.
“Oftentimes, career politicians — their singular accomplishment or their primary accomplishment in life is getting elected, and then once in office, they spend most of their time trying to get re-elected. In the private sector, in the business world, you actually have to accomplish things. You have to achieve, you have to get results day in and day out,” he said.
In his role as Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs chairman, Johnson will need to be a partner of the Trump administration on efforts such as border security, as well as under-the-hood changes to the government’s regulatory process.
His advice for Trump is to start with rollbacks through executive actions and agency rule-making.
“So many of these policies have been put in place with the stroke of a pen with executive, so we need to remove the harmful ones also with the stroke of a pen,” Johnson said. “Anything that they can do that won’t require a Democratic Senate vote — or a vote by a Democratic senator — we should do.”
That puts resolutions under the Congressional Review Act near the top of Johnson’s to-do list for Republicans on Capitol Hill. The CRA’s expedited process allows for disapproval of rules issued by the Obama administration late in 2016 without needing 60 senators to vote to break a filibuster.
“Look at the low-hanging fruit,” Johnson said. “Things we can do that we can actually accomplish that we don’t have to worry about Democrat obstruction, we can actually get the economy moving forward.”
Johnson had sued the Obama administration’s Office of Personnel Management in 2014, alleging that the agency was running afoul of the 2010 health care law in making employer contributions for members buying health care coverage on the D.C. insurance exchange.
He said an effort championed by retiring Louisiana GOP Sen. David Vitter to stop the employer contributions from being paid for members and some staff was less of a specific problem now, given that Republicans will seek to dismantle the health care law.
He also said that House Budget Chairman Tom Price, a Georgia Republican whom Trump has nominated for Health and Human Services secretary, could make changes through regulation.
“One of the bad things about the health care law is it gave the secretary of HHS all kinds of discretion,” Johnson said, adding that with Price, the tables will be turned. “We can do an awful lot in terms of using agency discretion to start repairing the damage of Obamacare.”