On one level it’s very simple. All I want is a Democratic candidate who can defeat Republican Sen. Ron Johnson in November. I have four top choices, so why can’t I just pick one? 

Well, it’s complicated and I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. Democrats are in an intensely practical mood. Most of us would set aside any other consideration if we thought one candidate had a clearly better shot at beating the dreaded RoJo. But even at this late stage of the game — the candidates have been running for well over a year and a half and the primary is on Aug. 9 — a third of us are still undecided according to the latest statewide poll. 

And I would bet that even the support registered by people who have allegedly made up their minds is soft. According to the Marquette University Law School poll released about a month ago, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes led the field with 25 percent followed by Milwaukee Bucks exec Alex Lasry with 21 percent, state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski at 9 percent, and Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson who had 7 percent. But things feel so fluid that I wouldn’t even necessarily count out Nelson right now even though he trails the leader by 18 points. 

A lot of us are going to be walking to our polling place or hovering over our ballots at our kitchen table still debating what to do. (A note about those kitchen table ballots. According to a recent ruling by the Wisconsin Elections Commission, you must deposit absentee ballots in a mailbox or at the clerk’s office yourself. I deposited my 93-year old mother’s ballot and apparently violated the law. I’m blaming Mom for asking me to do it. Maybe I should report her to Michael Gableman. I might get a coupon for a MyPillow for my civic mindedness.)

Because I know you’re on pins and needles wondering what my latest thinking is, let me fill you in. 

Tom Nelson. I have intended to vote for him since the start of his campaign — he was the first to get into the race. My rationale was that he has a long record of winning in red and purple Wisconsin. This race could come down to 20,000 or 30,000 votes. Any Democrat is going to clean up in Dane and Milwaukee counties, but somebody who can squeeze another percentage point or two out of the Fox River Valley might just make it across the finish line. But Nelson just hasn’t been able to make up for the big gap in fundraising between him and the other three top tier candidates. I worry he can’t make it through the primary. And his proposal to nationalize oil companies won’t fly in a general election. 

Mandela Barnes. He’s won statewide, albeit on a ticket with Gov. Tony Evers, and he’s a likable and charismatic candidate. But he has said some flat-out stupid things in the last couple of years that would come back to haunt him against Johnson. He indicated that he was for “defunding the police” and he posed with a T-shirt that read, “Abolish ICE.” At an event a year ago he said the founding of America was “awful.” There’s context to all of those things, but here’s a clue: RoJo and his operatives will not be big on context. 

Alex Lasry. Bias alert: this guy has my ‘Stalis up. I was raised in blue collar West Allis and it just sticks in my craw that the only thing that makes this guy a viable candidate is his dad’s $2 billion. I’d vote for him anyway if I thought he could win in the fall. But he’s from Milwaukee by way of New York. He even claimed property tax deductions for homes in both places — by mistake, but it still indicates divided loyalties. And it doesn’t help that Lasry engineered a delay in filing his federal financial disclosure statement, which was due in May and now won’t be filed until just after the primary. What if there’s something embarrassing there? It’s not available for primary voters to weigh but it’ll be more fodder for Johnson. To me that’s all heavier baggage than Barnes’ past statements. 

Sarah Godlewski. She has also won statewide, albeit for an office that has virtually no real responsibilities. Moreover, up until now she’s run a lackluster campaign. But it’s an advantage to be the only woman in a Democratic field and the overturning of Roe v. Wade has just made that even more relevant. I thought she did better than any of the other candidates at the televised debate on Sunday night. Her answers were concise and punchy. You got the sense she could contrast well against the Evil One come the fall. She has her own money to spend, though not as much as Lasry, and could come on strong in the closing weeks before the primary. 

So, what have I decided? I won’t vote for Lasry because I don’t think he can beat Johnson, but the other three are still in play for me. Anybody got a Ouija board I can borrow? 

Dave Cieslewicz is a Madison- and Upper Peninsula-based writer who served as mayor of Madison from 2003 to 2011. Both his reporting and his opinion writing have been recognized by the Milwaukee Press Club. You can read more of his work at Yellow Stripes & Dead Armadillos. He’s the author of Light Blue: How center-left moderates can build an enduring Democratic majority.


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