For political writers, Charles Franklin is Santa Claus. Every few months Franklin, who runs the Marquette University Law School poll, issues a new report. It’s always packed with good stuff that writers like me get to unwrap. This month’s poll was no exception, so let’s dive right in.
Let’s start with the least surprising finding. Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry is gaining on frontrunner Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes for the Democratic nomination to take on Republican Sen. Ron Johnson. Lasry, who trailed Barnes by 10 points in February, is now down by only three, 19 percent to 16 percent. That’s not surprising because Lasry has spent $4.4 million of his personal wealth to buy TV ads and other media spots. My own household has received three or four full color Lasry mailers just within the last couple of weeks.
Lasry’s campaign is, as you would expect, touting the new polling numbers, but there’s less here than meets the eye. For one thing, the leading candidate is “undecided” with 48 percent. Democrats are a long way from making up their minds, and 16 percent is a long way from what anyone will need to get the nomination.
Second, two of the four major candidates — Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson — haven’t spent much of anything on media campaigns yet. The other candidate, State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, has spent about $1 million of her own money on television spots. She saw her numbers go from 5 percent to 7 percent while Nelson has remained at 5 percent both in February and April.
Frankly, to spend almost four and a half million bucks while most of the other candidates haven’t even joined the game yet and to still only be at 16 percent is nothing to write home about for Lasry.
Meanwhile, Nelson got some very positive Russ Feingold-like buzz last week from The Washington Post (headline: “Wisconsin’s Tom Nelson Reminds Democrats How Populists Should Sound”). If he can start to get that same kind of story in more prestigious papers like the Stevens Point Journal, he’ll have plenty of fodder for his own ads once he starts running them.
The bottom line is that this race is still wide open. Any of the four top candidates has a shot, and every Democrat I talk to says the same thing: They just want a candidate who can beat Ron Johnson. So, expect the candidates to tout their RoJo killing cred — and to attack one another on their unelectability — as the campaign heats up before the August primary.
As for Johnson, he could ride the expected big Republican wave to a third term, but he may also drift out to sea. His approval rating remains at a miserable 36 percent, the same number he posted in February. His unfavorables combined with a strong Democratic challenge could spell the end for Johnson even in a good Republican year, but there is still a very long way to go.
The Democrat in that race could be helped by Gov. Tony Evers. Evers has something to cheer about in this poll. His approval rating is 49 percent versus a negative rating of 43 percent. That +6 split may not be overwhelming but both Johnson and President Joe Biden are under water at -10 and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos is at a well-deserved -17. So, while only 36 percent of voters think the state is headed in the right direction, they seem to be holding Vos more responsible for that than Evers. The bottom line is that if Evers pulls off a win, he may have just enough juice to pull the Democrat running against Johnson across the finish line with him.
But not all the news is good for Democrats. The issue landscape isn’t so favorable. Voters’ top concerns are inflation, public education, illegal immigration, crime and COVID. Those are all issues on which the Republicans have an advantage. So, an unpopular candidate like Johnson will have to ask voters to ignore their distaste for him personally and instead focus on issues where Republicans have more popular positions.
Then there’s Michael Gableman. The professional clown and former state Supreme Court justice running the partisan “investigation” into the 2020 election is a hero to hard-right Trump supporters and a joke to people like me. But it turns out that most sensible Wisconsin voters think about him as much as he deserves, which is to say not much at all. Only 13 percent approve of what Gableman is doing, 27 percent don’t like it and 57 percent haven’t paid enough attention to him to have an opinion.
Let’s finish with some happy news. Have you noticed how even the Republican culture warriors don’t make a sound about gay marriage anymore? That could be because 72 percent of Wisconsinites now support it, up from 55 percent in 2014.
Dave Cieslewicz is a Madison- and Upper Peninsula-based writer who served as mayor of Madison from 2003 to 2011. 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.