And the winner is Mandela Barnes.
Yesterday’s surprise announcement from Alex Lasry that he was dropping out of the race for the Democratic senate nomination and endorsing Barnes all but assures that the Lieutenant Governor will be the nominee. Tom Nelson dropped out last week and also endorsed Barnes. State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski has vowed to remain in the race to the end, but her candidacy never took off and, with the party quickly coalescing around Barnes, she would seem to have little chance.
Nonetheless, my plan is to vote for Godlewski. At this point there’s no harm in doing that and I’ve always intended to vote for the candidate with the best shot at beating Sen. Ron Johnson. For most of the campaign I thought that candidate was Nelson. When he dropped out, I tended to think Godlewski was the strongest of the remaining three. I haven’t seen anything that would change my mind. Godlewski’s baggage is lighter than Barnes’ and I think it’s an advantage to be a woman in a year when abortion rights are an issue. I can see her playing better in the suburbs and holding more suburban women who had crossed over against Donald Trump in 2020 than Barnes.
No matter. It seems like Barnes will take on Johnson in November. That’s going to be a steep uphill climb. Johnson is an odd political animal, a dour, unpopular politician who wins anyway. His current approval rating is hovering in the mid-30’s. He’s regarded by those who have met with him as being close-minded and humorless. He’s trafficked in conspiracy theories on everything from the Insurrection to climate change to vaccines. And yet, in head-to-head matchups against Barnes and the others in a recent Marquette poll he is within the margin of error. He also upset then popular Sen. Russ Feingold in 2010 as part of the Tea Party wave and he beat Feingold again in 2016, coming from way behind in the polls.
This time Johnson will ride a big red wave again just as he did 12 years ago. And in all his races his media has been excellent. While waiting to see who his Democratic opponent will be, he’s been running ads running against Pres. Joe Biden, primarily on inflation and crime.
And now Johnson and his allies will have new material to work with against Barnes. His endorsements from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders will hurt him in the general and contribute to a theme that he is too radical for Wisconsin. Then there are Barnes’ own words and actions. Expect to see an ill-advised photo of him holding an “Abolish ICE” tee shirt in a commercial soon, and that’s just for starters. At this point, I think RoJo probably wins a third term.
But, while that’s just an honest, objective analysis of where we’re at, it’s far from a sure thing. Gas prices are down and Sen. Joe Manchin’s reversal on Democratic priorities may ease the perception (false, by the way) that Democrats can’t get anything done. If we don’t talk ourselves into a recession, unemployment remains historically low and wages continue to go up. So, while things look grim for Democrats right now, you can also see some hopeful signs on the horizon, and three months is an eternity in politics.
Finally, if we’re going to list Barnes’ weaknesses, it’s only fair to account for his strengths. He’s the opposite of Johnson as a retail politician. He comes off as warm, friendly, even charming. He has a sense of humor. In short, he’s likable and relatable. It’s important that his handlers let that come through in his media. Counter some of the radical narrative with the personal one. The guy doesn’t come off as Che Guevara. And, of course, the hope is that he’ll inspire big turnout in Milwaukee, which is crucial for any Democrat to succeed.
In short, while the odds are with Johnson, it’s way too early to count Barnes out.
And on a related matter… a final word about Alex Lasry. I’ve been strongly critical of him here and in other places. I just didn’t like the fact that the guy’s primary calling card was his father’s money. Nonetheless, campaigns are hard. They take an incredible amount of work and they can be challenging for families. And you’re putting your own name out there and exposing yourself to attack. Even when those attacks are justified — as I think mine were — it can’t help but sting. I hope Lasry will stay in Milwaukee and stay involved in the party. Build it up. Maybe become party chair. Continue his philanthropic activities. If he runs again in ten or even twenty years (when he’ll be all of 55), he could follow in the footsteps of Herb Kohl, another Milwaukee millionaire who did a lot of good for Wisconsin.