Handicapping the Senate Race

The Democratic primary for the right to take on Sen. Ron Johnson (should he decide to run for a third term — see below) is starting to fill up. There are now three announced candidates and at least as many waiting in the wings. Here’s a quick review of the field as it starts to take shape.

Tom Nelson, the Outagamie County Executive, was the first to announce.

Is he qualified? You bet, and then some. Nelson served as Assembly Majority Leader and he has been county exec for a decade.

Can he win the nomination? It’s an uphill battle. Outagamie County is not exactly a Democratic base and he’s not well known statewide.

Can he beat Johnson? Yes. the same things that make him a long shot in the primary, make him a good bet in the general. He already wins in a Republican part of the state and Madison and Milwaukee will turn out strong for anybody who isn’t Johnson.

Alex Lasry, joined Nelson a few months after Nelson announced.

Is he qualified? No. Only 33, he’s never held elected office and he’s only in Wisconsin because his father owns the Bucks. His executive position with the team is a gift from dad.

Can he win the nomination? Yes. In fact, right now I’d say he’s the favorite. That’s because Democratic consultants and insiders over value the role of money in politics, and his father prints it.

Can he beat Johnson? Maybe, but probably not. He’s a much weaker general election candidate than Nelson. Lasry is easy to attack for having shallow Wisconsin roots and what roots he has are in Milwaukee. Unless your name is Herb Kohl, it’s hard to win a statewide race out of Milwaukee.

State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski joined the race this week.

Is she qualified? Marginally. She’s the State Treasurer, which is another way of saying she doesn’t have a job, but she won and holds a statewide office, such as it is.

Can she win the nomination? Yes. She’s likely to be the only woman in the race and in a Democratic primary that counts for a lot. She’s also staked out strong hard-left positions that activists love.

Can she beat Johnson? Probably. She presents well and will be a good contrast to him. She could play well with suburban women, but her hard-left politics might get in the way.

Sarah Godlweski is the latest candidate to take on Sen. Ron Johnson.

Let’s take a look at a couple of other candidates who, among a few others, have yet to make a decision.

Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes is considering a run.

Is he qualified? Yes. He served in the Assembly and for the last couple of years Gov. Tony Evers seems to have actively involved him in his administration.

Can he win the nomination? Unlikely. Lasry is undercutting his Milwaukee base.

Can he beat Johnson? Probably not. He’s got the same Milwaukee problem Lasry has.

And, finally, there is perennial non-candidate Congressman Ron Kind.

Is he qualified? Absolutely. He’s been in Congress since 1997.

Can he win the nomination? That’s the big question. He’s a moderate in a party with a hard-left base. But if Democrats just want to win, they might go for him. They did with Evers and Biden.

Can he beat Johnson? Yes. He has the best chance of winning the general as any candidate in the field.

It’s just a hunch, but I would bet that Johnson will run again. He’s been saying exceptionally crazy stuff the last three months. That seems to me to be an attempt (probably successful) to get back in the good graces of the Trump base after he was caught telling the truth. Late last year he had a candid, private conversation with a local GOP official in which Johnson acknowledged that Biden had won the election. (Among sane people this was referred to as “reality.”) The local official spilled the beans about the Senator’s brush with factual information and there was a small uproar among the faithful. Nobody would work this hard to look unhinged if he wasn’t planning to run again. But maybe that’s just me.

Whether Johnson runs or not, it will be a tough race for any Democrat in an off year election. Right now, I’d say if Democrats just want to win, Kind and Nelson are their best bets.

In an earlier draft I got Tom Nelson’s county wrong. He’s the exec in Outagamie, not Ozaukee County, as I had written. Thanks to alert readers for pointing out my mistake.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

6 thoughts on “Handicapping the Senate Race

  1. Hi, Dave. Nelson is from Outagamie County, not Ozaukee County. In the interest of completeness, there’s a fourth Democrat already announced, Gillian Battino, a Marshfield radiologist, and Stephen Olikara, the Milwaukee-based founder of the Millennial Action Project, just quit his job as he explores the race. I took that as a sign he’s likely to throw his hat in the ring.


  2. Not sure how many candidates will actually run but a primary split that many ways is likely to yield a candidate that can’t win the general,


  3. You greatly underestimate Sarah Godlewski. Scott Walker and GOP legislators sought to eliminate the office of State Treasurer, which would have left Wisconsin without a fiscal watchdog. Godlewski led the successful statewide campaign to save it. Then she successfully won the statewide election to fill it. None of the other announced candidates can claim one, let alone two, statewide elections. If you want to beat Ron Johnson, go with a proven winner.


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