I can’t say I’ve seen anything like it during my four decades in and around Wisconsin politics. Four major candidates for statewide office spend millions of dollars over a year and a half. But then three of them drop out two weeks before the election.
But that’s what happened in the once hotly contested race for the Democratic nomination to take on Republican Sen. Ron Johnson in November. Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson was the first to exit on July 25. Two days later, on July 27, Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry called it quits. And by July 29, State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski had packed it in. All three endorsed the presumptive leader, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes.
A handful of minor candidates remain in the race, including Steven Olikara, Kou Lee, Peter Peckarsky and Darrell Williams.
The only thing that comes close to this was the Democratic Senate primary in 1992. In that race, businessman Joe Checota all but endorsed state Sen. Russ Feingold when it became clear that Checota was not likely to win the nomination. Checota’s main motivation was his dislike of the third candidate in the race, Congressman Jim Moody. But even then, Checota never withdrew from the race.
What happened back in ’92 and what happened last week point up why early voting really isn’t such a great idea. I’ve long argued — with virtually nobody agreeing with me — that we should go back to expecting that people will vote in person on election day. That’s because stuff can happen in the closing weeks of a campaign. In this case, those who voted early for a candidate who ended their campaign early will have to go through the unusual process of having their vote “spoiled.” It can be done, but we’d be better off if we just waited to vote on election day.
In any event, this was an historic and dizzying week, but was it good for the Democrats’ prospects of defeating Johnson? I’d say it depends how you look at it.
Clearing the field gives Barnes another week and a half to collect national money that will certainly come pouring in and it gives the whole party apparatus and supportive third party groups that much more time to get organized behind one candidate. But, of course, it also gives Johnson and his affiliated groups time to gear up against Barnes.
But this helps Barnes in another way. According to a story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, when Lasry found that he was trailing by double digits, his pollsters told him that he only had one chance to make up that ground: he could have gone negative on Barnes. I’ve been harshly critical of Lasry’s candidacy, but the responsible way in which he left the race deserves praise and it bodes well for him in the future if he decides to run again.
On the other hand, the Democrats now have a seriously flawed standard-bearer. Barnes has made several ill-advised statements. He once suggested that he was in favor of defunding the police and there’s a picture of him holding a T-shirt that reads, “Abolish ICE.” (That doesn’t mean he was for warm drinks. The shirt referred to the Imigration and Customs Enforcement agency.) Republicans have already been using a video from a year ago when he said that the founding of America was “awful.” He now says that he’s against both defunding police and abolishing ICE and there’s context to his comment about the founding, but don’t expect Republicans to be too careful with details.
And his endorsements from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders will play into the narrative that he’s extremely liberal.
Earlier this summer I rated the candidates’ electability against Johnson. Nelson came out on top, followed by Godlewski, Barnes and Lasry. I still think that’s right. Democrats are not putting their best foot forward here.
But that doesn’t mean he can’t win. Barnes is an excellent retail politician. He’s a likable guy who does not come off as Che Guevara, which is the kind of leader Republicans will compare him to. Barnes’ primary campaign emphasized rebuilding the middle class and when he did take on a hot button issue, his ad about abortion, which he filmed with his mother, struck just the right tone.
Meanwhile, Johnson is unpopular, with approval ratings hovering in the mid-30s. If Barnes has said inadvisable things, RoJo has said just plain crazy stuff about the insurrection, vaccines and COVID, climate change and more. If this gets to be a referendum on which guy you like more and which guy is less extreme, Barnes wins in a walk.
Finally, no Democrat can win without huge turnouts in Milwaukee and Madison and Barnes is a candidate who can generate that kind of vote.
So, it was a wild week and Democrats may not have ended up with the candidate that gives them the best chance to beat Johnson. But they’ve got a candidate with assets that counter his negatives and they’re united early behind one man. They’ve got a chance.
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.