Senate Race Update

About once a month I’ll be checking in on the U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin. Here’s this month’s take on who’s up and who’s down.

It’s going to be hard for any Democrat to win the U.S. Senate seat now held by Ron Johnson. 

I know. You cannot believe I’m saying this. Isn’t Ron Johnson a conspiracy theory-spewing, climate- and COVID-denying national embarrassment? Why, yes, he is. And don’t count him out. 

Don’t forget that six years ago Russ Feingold seemed like he was cruising to retake his old seat from Johnson, maintaining a double-digit lead for months. Then Johnson’s campaign kicked into full gear and he beat Feingold by a comfortable margin. Johnson knows how to run a campaign that turns out the Republican base. It’s no accident that he’s said one outrageous thing after another about COVID, climate change and election integrity. 

And, of course, the big picture is the bleakest of all. The party in control of the White House has increased its congressional majorities only twice since World War II. And if Democrats finally get around to passing their hard and soft infrastructure bills (as I’m certain they will), we could have a complacent and fatalistic Democratic base on our hands to boot. 

It’s probably even a worse prospect for the ultimate Democratic nominee if Johnson doesn’t run. Then we’re likely to get Rep. Mike Gallagher from Green Bay. Gallagher is a smooth former Marine with a gift for being able to amp up the base while not appearing to be totally crazy. In fact, it’s entirely possible that Johnson is stretching out his decision as a way of running out the clock for anybody but Gallagher.

Democrats are eager to take on Sen. Ron Johnson. But what if he hands off the nomination to Rep Mike Gallagher?

Another Marine veteran, Kevin Nicholson, might also run if Johnson doesn’t, but he also says that he’ll run instead for governor if RoJo does go for a third term. I don’t know. Is it just me? Or does the slogan, I want to be your senator…or your governor…depending on my chances!, seem a little off to you? 

With all that cheery throat-clearing out of the way, let’s consider who is likely to take on Johnson or Gallagher or whoever else might come out of the blue and run for the other guys. 

Without any polling data at my disposal, and so just from what I hear on the street, I’d say there are four leading candidates in this order. 

Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes. He’s charismatic, very popular with the base, and he just snagged an endorsement from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts). For those who worry that a Black man can’t win statewide, he already has done that on the ticket with Gov. Tony Evers. In fact, there are those who credit Barnes for pulling the pair over the top by helping boost turnout in Milwaukee and Madison. Also, don’t forget that Barack Obama won Wisconsin twice, and comfortably both times. 

State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski. She’s also popular with the base and has won statewide, but she has an advantage in that she can partially fund her own race as she and her husband are millionaires. Neither Barnes nor Godlewski paid state income taxes in at least one of the last four years, but in Barnes’ case it was because he had no income while Godlewski and her husband took legal deductions that reduced their taxes to zero. If she remains the only high-profile female candidate in the primary she’ll be formidable. 

Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson. If qualifications mattered, Nelson would be the hands down favorite as he has more political experience than anybody else in the field. He served as a state representative and rose to Assembly majority leader and he’s been county exec for a decade. He also wins consistently in a red part of the state. For those who think that a straight white guy can’t win the Democratic nomination, see Evers. He went up against solid female and Black candidates and still got the nomination simply because Democrats wanted to win and he seemed like their best shot. Nelson fits the same profile. 

Alex Lasry. Barnes’ and Godlewski’s tax issues probably won’t have much impact on the race, but that’s a different story for Lasry. The son of one of the billionaire owners of the Milwaukee Bucks, Lasry took deductions for local taxes paid on condos in both Milwaukee and New York in the same year. Even if that’s a minor legal scrape that he can resolve by simply paying back the money to New York, he’s a guy who didn’t notice that he got a $24,000 tax benefit. That only adds to the narrative that the native New Yorker is out of touch with average Wisconsin voters. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel political columnist Dan Bice began one recent piece, “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.” But he’s well liked in Milwaukee, he has the support of some Dane County influentials like Rep. Shelia Stubbs — and, hey, never count out somebody who prints his own money. 

According to the website Ballotpedia, also running as Democrats are Wausau radiologist Gillian Battino; Milwaukee Ald. Chantia Lewis; business owner Adam Murphy; Millennial Action Project CEO Steven Olikara; Jeff Rumbaugh, who works with disabled teenagers; and Wisconsin Emergency Management Administrator Darrell Williams. Ballotpedia also lists Kou Lee and Peter Peckarsky, but provides no additional information.

None of these candidates is yet showing much sign of challenging the big four, but Battino seems to have some ability to self-fund and Olikara got the endorsement of former Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton. Lewis has been criminally charged with misappropriation of campaign funds. 

There’s still over 10 months to go before the August 2022 primary date, but right now I’d say it’s Barnes’ race to lose. But no matter how good the Democratic challenger is, don’t count out the other guy, no matter who that turns out to be.

A version of this piece originally appeared in Isthmus.

Welcome to the 228th 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 “Senate Race Update

  1. A good Democratic candidate should beat loopy Ron Johnson.

    Gallagher is another matter. As for amping up the base, ever since Biden’s sloppy Afghanistan withdrawal, it seems like Fox News has him on every day. By the time the Democrat is chosen, Mikey will be known and liked by voters across the state.


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