The Take on Those Who Would Take on Ron Johnson

If you’re one of those Wisconsinites not running for the U.S. Senate you’ll have a keen interest in who is. Of course, at this rate, non-candidates will be in the minority soon.

The Democrats have no less than a dozen or so hopefuls (we can only work with rough estimates at this point) for the nomination to take on Republican Ron Johnson, assuming he does run.

I have a theory about Johnson. He is signaling that he is running again precisely because he appears to be such a nut job. Every time Johnson finds himself exposed for telling an obvious truth he tries to make up for it by saying things that are just bat-shit crazy.

So in December he thinks he’s having a confidential conversation with a Republican insider and so he reveals that he believes what the sane world already knows: Donald Trump lost. But the confidential conversation goes public and Johnson spends the next couple of months using his Senate position to give voice to conspiracy theories about the election and quack remedies to COVID-19. He gets himself back into Trump’s good graces.

Then this week he’s caught once again saying things that suggest that he might be in touch with reality. He told someone he thought was a conservative supporter, but turned out to be a liberal provocateur, that he really didn’t see anything askew about the November results. The next day he said it was a good idea to take horse pills to treat COVID. See the pattern? Nobody would work this hard to appear to be this unhinged unless he was trying to appeal to the Republican base.

Anyway, back to the horse race at hand. Who’s got the inside track to take on Johnson? I’d say most of the crowded field has no chance and that it’s really about three, maybe four, candidates.

Without any polling at my disposal, and so just by the seat of my pants, I’d say the three leading candidates, in order, are Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski and Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, with Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry fading into the pack.

This is an interesting mix because it says a lot about the two main factions in the Democratic Party right now: the identity politics absolutists and the realists. The election of Trump pushed Democrats in two directions. Some became hard-left social justice warriors while others became intensely focussed on just winning. (Close readers of YSDA may have concluded that I count myself in the latter group.)

For now i’m with Tom Nelson because I think he has the best shot at beating Ron Johnson, but I’ll vote for whoever looks the strongest next summer.

The identity politics absolutists, concentrated in Dane County, will simply not vote for a white guy if they have other credible options. This sect will be split over who is the more put upon “marginalized” group: women or Black people? If Godlewski were Black or Barnes were female their choice would be so much easier.

The realists figure that any Democrat would be better than Ron Johnson. (Let’s face it, people, pocket lint would be better than Ron Johnson.) The realists voted for Tony Evers in 2018 and Joe Biden in 2020 and they prevailed both times in the primary and ultimately in the general election.

So, while I’d put Nelson in the third spot right now, if Democrats continue to feel like they just want to win he might have a shot. Yes, he commits the three great sins of the identity absolutists: he’s straight, white and male. But he’s as liberal as all get out and he still wins in a red part of the state. He’s also hands down the most qualified candidate, having served as Assembly Majority Leader and now county executive, but I don’t think anybody cares much about qualifications these days. (See Johnson, Ron.)

Lasry looked strong in the early going, but he’s had a rough month or so. He really needed to chase Barnes out of the race, so that the two wouldn’t compete for the Milwaukee vote. But Barnes got in anyway.

Lasry also won’t be sending Milwaukee Journal political columnist Dan Bice any holiday cards from now on. Bice reported that Lasry has never had a job that his billionaire parents didn’t arrange for him. “U.S. Senate candidate Alex Lasry made perhaps the best political and business decision of his life a little more than 34 years ago. He picked the right parents,” wrote Bice in his lede. Ouch.

Bice also took a shot at Godlewski when he discovered that she and her millionaire husband paid no Wisconsin income tax last year while Godlewski advocates for a new “wealth tax.” She didn’t break any rules, but this does have a whiff of hypocrisy about it. She would have been better off coming out with it herself along the lines of, “I didn’t pay any Wisconsin taxes last year and that’s just wrong.”

And then things got even worse for Lasry when the Associated Press reported that he took property tax deductions for homes in both New York and Wisconsin, when the laws of both man and physics say that a person can be a resident of only one state at a time.

Lasry’s campaign claims that he tried to get word to his New York condo association that he didn’t live there anymore and, so, shouldn’t get the tax break. Maybe the association did mess up, but here’s the thing. When a guy doesn’t notice a $23,000 tax break in his annual returns, I don’t know, maybe he doesn’t have all that much in common with average Wisconsinites.

So, now the script is flipped. It would be best for Barnes if Lasry exited the race before next spring’s filing deadline. If there were no other credible Milwaukee candidates on the ballot (a Milwaukee alder has announced that she is running, but doesn’t appear to be a strong candidate), Barnes would have an excellent shot at the nomination.

And those realists who think that Barnes would have no chance of winning a general election should remember that Barack Obama won a contested primary and two general elections here, all easily. So, it’s possible that Barnes or Godlewski could marry the identity absolutists and the realists in one candidate.

For now I like Nelson because I think he has the best chance of winning a general election, but like a good realist, I’ll vote for whoever appears to be the most viable candidate to beat Johnson when we get to the primary in August of 2022.

Welcome to the 198th consecutive day of posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!


Published by dave cieslewicz

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

2 thoughts on “The Take on Those Who Would Take on Ron Johnson

  1. Nelson is the candidate most in the mold of Russ Feingold and he got beat twice. Nelson’s faux folksy outsider thing is a put on and does not stand up to scrutiny.
    Barnes cozying up to Our Revolution and the WFP is an automatic disqualification for me I won’t vote, donate or volunteer for any candidate in any primary that courts these outside groups.
    Godlewski has run statewide and no one gives a shit about obscure tax stuff.
    Lasry has a giant pile of money and should not be counted out in a divided field, and again no one cares about these weird tax issues.


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