Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Hot Democratic Contest for U.S. Senate

Several impressive candidates looking to defeat Ron Johnson. Who's the front runner?

By - Apr 19th, 2021 05:53 pm
Sarah Godlewski, Alex Lasry, Tom Nelson and Mandela Barnes.

Sarah Godlewski, Alex Lasry, Tom Nelson and Mandela Barnes.

The Democratic primary for U.S. Senator started very early: it was back in October that Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, the former majority leader of the Wisconsin Assembly, announced he would run for the seat now held by Republican Ron Johnson. That was more than two years before the November 2022 election, signaling how important this race is. Experts expect it to be one of the top targets for Democrats in the country. 

Alex Lasry, 33-year-old Milwaukee Bucks executive and son of billionaire Milwaukee Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry, announced for the position in February and just four days ago State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski announced she is running. That’s three strong Democratic candidates, with a possible fourth, Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes, considered a possible candidate. 

With that in mind Lasry dropped a bomb in early April, announcing he had raised more than $1 million in the first quarter of 2021, just 43 days after announcing his candidacy. It was a warning to all the other candidates that Lasry, whose father is one of the richest people on the planet, will be able to raise tons of money for this campaign. 

Lasry finished the first quarter of 2021 with $1,086,812 in contributions. By comparison Nelson raised just $263,000 in the first quarter, and Godlewski, who has just entered the campaign, has nothing to announce at this point. 

Lasry has also announced a long list of endorsements from about a dozen Milwaukee political officials, many of them African American, including Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley and Common Council President Cavalier Johnson. The message to Barnes is that Lasry has sewn up the power structure in the Lt. Governor’s home base. 

Yet Democratic observers I talked to think there is still a good chance that Barnes will enter the race. And they rate Barnes, should he decide to run, as the front runner for the Democratic nomination. 

“If Barnes gets in, all the cards get reshuffled,” says longtime Democratic politico Evan Zeppos, “because he brings a base of Milwaukee supporters, appeal to African American voters and more statewide name recognition than any of the others.”

And he likely takes votes from Lasry, Zeppos notes, and “Lasry must have a strong Milwaukee base to be competitive.” Barnes might also take away some of those endorsements from Lasry, as some officials decide to switch or stay neutral.  

If Barnes stays out, Lasry still faces a formidable opponent in Godlewski, who also won a statewide position in 2018, though State Treasurer is a lower-profile office than Lt Governor. But Godlewski is under consideration for funding from Emily’s List, which has targeted this as a key race. She also has a wealthy husband, so is likely to be well-financed in this race.  

And money will be a huge factor in this race. “If you think you’ve seen a lot of spending in past elections, prepare to be dumbfounded,” says Democratic consultant Joe Zepecki. “This will be by far the most expensive campaign in state history.”

Lasry’s access to wealthy donors certainly helps him. But it also hurts. More than 50% of the $1 million he raised came from the New York area, the campaign concedes, which reinforces the idea that Lasry lacks deep roots in Wisconsin. (73% of the money raised by Nelson was from Wisconsin.) “Alex is a great guy, but I’m not sure Wisconsin is ready to support a transplanted New Yorker as its senator,” Zeppos says. 

The headline in the Bloomberg story was “Alex Lasry Taps Wall Street to Out-Raise Wisconsin Senate Rivals” A flock of New York financial industry plutocrats gave the maximum donation to Lasry. That won’t help Lasry woo average voters. 

Nor will his donations from various NBA officials. It’s a reminder that Lasry’s father benefitted from a taxpayer subsidy of hundreds of millions for the Milwaukee Bucks’ new arena, something which surveys show voters typically oppose. Opponents of Alec Lasry might also note he was fresh out of New York University with his masters in business administration when he was handed a job as the team’s Vice President of Strategy & Operations.

Assuming Barnes doesn’t run, Lasry will have a base in Milwaukee, Godlewski in Madison and Nelson in the Fox Valley. That leaves western and northern Wisconsin up for grabs and it remains to be seen if Lasry, whose message so far has been Milwaukee-centric, can appeal to those voters. Godlewski, who is already barnstorming the state, has a secret weapon: the job of State Treasurer has few duties, which should leave her lots of time for campaigning over the next 18 months of the primary election. 

There’s not likely to be that much difference between the candidates on the issues. Nelson, who was a Democratic delegate for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2020, echoes many of the economic and social messages that Sanders raised in his presidential bids. But all three candidates are mostly hammering away at Ron Johnson, whose extremist conservative views leave plenty to attack. 

But what if Johnson doesn’t run? His campaign took in $545,337 in the first quarter of 2021 and ended March with $1 million cash on hand. No one in either party has any idea what Johnson will do. 

But some Democrats don’t believe it will matter if Johnson bows out. As one insider noted, “every single Republican who is liable to run was right with Johnson on issues like contesting the presidential election and opposing Covid safeguards.” 

There is another Democratic candidate, Dr. Gillian Battino, but she has little name recognition and has raised little money. Also exploring a run is Steven Olikara, founder of Millennial Action Project, the largest nonpartisan organization of young lawmakers in the U.S. That might change the campaign, adding a fresh face with potential appeal for younger voters.

Whoever wins the primary, they should have plenty of funding for the general election. Odds are it will be a high-profile, nationalized, red-versus-blue race, where the money will be pouring in from both parties.  

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4 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Hot Democratic Contest for U.S. Senate”

  1. Swblackwood says:

    No to Lasry. We don’t need billionaires in office.

  2. Dan Wilson says:

    We don’t need another Herb Kohl, who bought his senate seat and turned out to be an empty suit.

  3. sbaldwin001 says:

    “More than 50% of the $1 million he raised came from the New York area….”

    I feel very uneasy about this and also about the prospect of sending a billionaire to the U.S. Senate where he can vote on tax rates, estate taxes and many other less noticeable things that will effect his current and future value. U.S. senate candidates are not required to disclose their tax returns, and U.S. senators are not required to place their assets in a blind trust. Maybe it is time to consider these requirements.

  4. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    Barnes would be formidable for Senate, but he would be much better as Evers’ running mate. Not only does this help Evers get a second term (which prevents GOPs from messing with the 2024 presidential election here), it would set up Mandela for 1 of these 3 elections, which he would be set up to win

    1. Mayor of Milwaukee in 2024,
    2. Replacing Baldwin as US Senator in 2024 if she doesn’t run, or
    3. Governor in 2026.

    That seems to be a better fit for Barnes vs a possible loss in a Dem primary in 2022 and not being on the Guv ticket.

    As for Lasry, I don’t see it. A NY hedge fund guy based out of Milwaukee? With no background in politics besides being a billionaire’s son with connections? Can’t see that flying.

    Right now it feels like Nelson and Godlewski. Two younger, quality public servant types from outstate. Both should be working hard around the state in the next 16 months to hammer Johnson and WisGOP while showing why they deserve the primary nod.

    And money-raising is not a factor for the November election – any Dem who wins the primary will have tens of millions heading their way to flip this seat, especially if Johnson is running.

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