It’s hard enough for down-ballot Republicans in Wisconsin in presidential election years — the state has voted Democratic for president in every election since 1984. Now adding Trump — who couldn’t win the Republican primary in Wisconsin — only adds to the degree of difficulty.
For some GOP incumbents, the 2016 vote means contending with their Democratic rivals while also worrying about being dragged down by the man poised to be at the top of the Republican tcket in November.
“It was always going to be a tough race for Johnson because of the nature of our electorate in Wisconsin,” fervent anti-Donald Trump talk radio host Charlie Sykes said in an interview. “And, obviously, the Trump thing complicates things.”
Johnson, who is running against former Sen. Russell Feingold, is not alone. He’s among nearly a dozen incumbent Republican senators striving to navigate the impact of the bombastic and unpredictable Trump as the party’s standard-bearer on their own races.
Republicans hold a 54-46 majority in the Senate. But they are defending 24 seats in November compared with just 10 for Democrats — only a third of the Senate is up every two years — and they are in jeopardy of losing enough seats to lose control.
“The Senate majority is firmly up for grabs,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report. “The ‘Never Trump’ voters are a key voting block. We don’t know what they’ll do — because they don’t know what they’ll do in November.”
Wisconsin will surely be a test. Not only do Republican presidential candidates do poorly there in Novembers, but Trump also did poorly there in the spring. He lost the Wisconsin Republican primary by a wide margin to Ted Cruz.
Johnson has said he’ll support whoever gets the Republicans nomination. But he added in a Wisconsin radio interview this week: “To me, ‘support’ and ‘endorse’ are two totally different things.”
Brian Reisinger, a Johnson campaign spokesman, called the Trump question a media preoccupation.
“While the media obsesses with only the presidential election, Ron remains focused on doing his job — working to address the economic and national security concerns he’s heard from Wisconsinites in every corner of the state,” he said. “His position on the presidential race remains unchanged.”
Polls give a mixed view. In late March, a Marquette poll showed Feingold leading Johnson 47-42 percent. In February, Feingold was up 49-37.
Betsy Ankney, Johnson’s campaign manager, wrote in a memo leaked after the state’s primary that the incumbent can win because of high Republican voter turnout and a strong ground operation powered by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s machine.
Plus, Feingold is running against history. He’s trying to defeat the senator who defeated him, something that hasn’t been done anywhere since 1934.
“Right now, I believe Sen. Johnson’s in great condition,” Nancy Milholland, a Racine County Republican Party member and county co-chair of Johnson’s campaign. “He’s chairman of Homeland Security — he owns that. Russ Feingold, we fired him in 2010. And typically, once you’re fired you don’t come back.”
Still, Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll, said Johnson’s re-election chances remain “reasonably threatened, especially if it turns out to be a strong Hillary Clinton year” in Wisconsin.
Here’s a look at other Senate races to watch:
Arizona’s Republican incumbent John McCain usually sweats out primary challenges and comfortably prevails. The perspiration might be warranted this year. A poll released Tuesday by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling shows McCain easily beating State Sen. Kelli Ward and three other challengers.
But in a two-person race, McCain and Ward are tied at 41 percent. In addition, McCain has only a 35 percent job approval rating among Republican voters in the survey while 50 percent disapprove. Even before the poll’s release, McCain expressed concerns about Trump’s impact on his re-election.
“If Donald Trump is at the top of the ticket, here in Arizona, with over 30 percent of the vote being Hispanic, no doubt that this may be the race of my life,” McCain said at a closed-door Arizona fundraiser last month. A recording of the event was obtained by Politico.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) is regarded as the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbent.
He faces a tough challenge in Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) a wounded Iraq War veteran. Kirk has said he’d support Trump. But he also bucked his party leadership and was the first Republican senator to meet with Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s stalled Supreme Court nominee.