Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Which Democrat Can Beat Ron Johnson?

That may be the most important question for Democratic voters. And the answer?

By - Jun 20th, 2022 02:53 pm
Sarah Godlewski, Alex Lasry, Tom Nelson and Mandela Barnes.

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

For most Democrats this year the race isn’t about the “issues.” It’s about one single goal: “winning and beating Ron Johnson is more important than any issue, than anything else,” says one Democratic consultant.

Given Johnson’s low approval rating with state voters, and the long list of controversial, unproven claims he has made, there is an opportunity for the right opponent to unite Democrats, independents and even some Republicans in a vote against Johnson, the consultant contends.

The front runners in the polls right now are Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes and Bucks executive Alex Lasry. But is either the best candidate to defeat Johnson? Not to Mordecai Lee, former Democratic state legislator and UW-Milwaukee political science professor. “I’d say Tom Nelson has the best chance of beating Johnson and Sarah Godlewski the second best,” he says, “with the important caveat that this is different from predicting who will win the primary.”

For Lee and other observers, it gets down to how vulnerable each Democratic candidate would be to Republican attack ads. When you are as far underwater in approval ratings as Johnson, you have to drag your opponent down to that level. Which is to say the general election could be a nasty mud fight. This race could be the most important in the nation for control of the U.S. Senate and there will be money pouring in from both parties for attack ads.

To Democratic blogger and former Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, the one candidate he’s certain can’t withstand a GOP broadside is Lasry, “who at 34, only came to Wisconsin when his father bought the [Milwaukee] Bucks and who has accomplished nothing without the help of his parents. They got him a job as an intern in the Obama White House and a job on Wall Street and made him an executive in the Bucks organization….He was being paid $300,000 as an executive… also gifted a $50 million stake in the team. To add insult to injury, that $50 million share gained enormous value thanks to the $250 million in corporate welfare that went to the Bucks to build their new arena.”

Cieslewicz pours on more in his critique, but you get the idea. The number of potential attack lines, that Lasry is a daddy’s boy, a New Yorker and carpetbagger who came here to get rich off the taxpayers, are many, and the problem is Lasry can’t answer with anything he has accomplished on his own, because there is nothing. Lasry’s main qualification for the race is the money he can spend on a campaign, but whichever Democrat wins will get a lot of national money.

The case against Barnes as too liberal to win was made back in December in The Jewish Insider: “Barnes, who favors progressive policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, is a staunch supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and he has expressed admiration for such far-left Squad members as Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN). Those affinities have already drawn conservative attacks that are sure to intensify if Barnes advances to the general election.

“Republicans are, I think, salivating to face Barnes,” said Jessica Taylor, a Senate elections editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “They argue that he’s too progressive for the state.”

I doubt if Barnes’ support for a Green New Deal would hurt him, but Dan Bice has painted the candidate as being in favor of defunding the police, which Barnes denies. He has in the past called for taking money from “over-bloated budgets in police departments” and spending it on neighborhood services, which is not as sweeping as the movement’s zealots have favored. Bice also portrays Barnes as supporting abolishing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office, which Barnes also denies, though there is a tweet of him holding up a t-shirt with the slogan “Abolish ICE.” There’s some ambiguity here, but you can bet Barnes will be attacked on both issues.

But weighing against that is his winning personality: In person he comes off as a regular guy who’s modest, thoughtful and far from radical. That personality comes through in his ads, “Milk” and Doors,” and has probably also helped him gain support when campaigning in rural areas (he has visited every county in Wisconsin more than once).

State Treasurer Godlewski seems in many ways like the perfect candidate to defeat Johnson. She was won statewide office, is backed by Emily’s List, and from the beginning positioned herself as a “common sense” Democrat rather than a far left candidate. Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin declared that Godlewski “could be the best chance to defeat” Johnson. As the only woman in the race Godlewski seems like the perfect messenger for abortion rights, which is likely to be a key issue in the election, and she comes off best in ads where she portrays herself as a fighter for such rights.

Except. Pesky questions regarding how truthful she is keep popping up, including her claim she has a master degree (she does not) and that she cut $20 million from the Pentagon budget when she worked as Defense Department consultant (she could provide no evidence for this) and the fact she failed in vote in the 2016 presidential election. None of these strike me as fatal, but might help explain why she has made little headway in the polls to date.

Finally there is Tom Nelson, who ranks fourth in the polls and whose main support seems to be in Dane County (including Cieslewicz). As a former state legislator (for eight years) and current Outagamie County Executive (for more than 10 years), Nelson could have run as the most experienced, most competent candidate, “a kind of Tony Evers-style campaign,” a Democrat consultant contends, but instead has misread the current mood of Democrats, campaigning as a hell raising, Bernie Sanders-backing populist. “Serving alongside Bernie Sanders in the Senate and taking back the country from the Wall Street fat cats and corporate crooks who have closed our factories, busted our unions and betrayed our working class would be an honor,” Nelson has declared.

Nelson also backs the Green New Deal and Medicare for all, which Democrats presidential candidates who backed this in 2020 had trouble explaining and defending and would be a certain attack ad by Johnson. Still, Nelson has won reelection in a county that backed Donald Trump for president by a big margin.

Nelson probably would be the least vulnerable to attacks by Johnson, yet he seems to have no gravitas in his two campaign ads, which might help explain (along with having the least money to spend) why he ranks last in the polls. It’s a lot easier to get excited about Barnes and Godlewski in their ads, which might help them withstand any attacks. I think they have the best chance of beating Johnson, followed by Nelson and in dead last, Lasry. But you may draw a different conclusion based on the information presented here, so feel free to offer your thoughts.

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12 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Which Democrat Can Beat Ron Johnson?”

  1. NieWiederKrieg says:

    Tom Nelson and Mandela Barnes – Yes

    Sarah Godlewski and Alex Lasry – Hell No

  2. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    It feels like Godlewski is the best matchup vs Johnson. RoJo and the GOP attack machine would look awful for attacking a woman who looks and acts like Leslie Knope, especially after the repeal of Roe v. Wade. In addition, Godlewski’s background being from Western Wisconsin and as an elected statewide official is something GOPs can’t use resentment on, at least nearly as much as they can other candidates. And she’ll come at RoJo with the heat that he needs to be confronted with.

    Barnes can certainly win, and he is pulling some surprising national endorsements (Elizabeth Warren, Katie Porter in recent weeks). He also has a positive statewide profile as Lt. Gov, so it’s harder to play the “scary liberal” card when people already know him and like him. But as Bruce says, there will be things that a political junkie like me understands, but casual voters won’t. And I worry that Barnes will be too nice, and let the hate machine drown him out.

    Nelson might be the best candidate, and the fighting progressive thing works with him. He might have the best policy thoughts out there, but he’s also harshly criticized some of his opponen, in a way that looks whiny, and I’d be surprised if he contends. Too bad, because I think he translates well as a statewide candidate, and I wish he’d waited for 2026 guv race.

    Lasry is a big NO WAY. Terrible matchup for Johnson (rich out-of-state guy vs rich out-of-state guy), and as Bruce mentions, there are really no accomplishments of his own to speak of beyond riding Daddy’s connections. Any Dem candidate will have loads of money to take out Johnson, so what compelling reason is there to vote for Lasry? Tell Alex to help Giannis get another ring instead of this vanity BS.

  3. ringo muldano says:

    I’ve heard Alex riff a couple times during live interviews. Not impressed. Sarah’s a big step up.

    Be fine with either of NWK’s picks.

    RoJo needs to go away. Far away.

  4. danlarsen7007 says:

    As a right leaning independent, Barnes is not my choice. Of course, neither is Johnson. A Barnes/Johnson race would be a slugfest and would, I’m afraid. do not much more than turn of the silent center.

    I’m not real impressed with Lasry; politicians buying their way to office just doesn’t work (shades of Johnson twelve years ago; has Wisconsin learned a lesson?).

    That leaves Godlewski and Nelson. Both, I think, could woo the center and make Johnson a memory. My choice? watching the polls and looking for the best choice against Barnes and Lasry (leaning towards Godlewski right now).

  5. NieWiederKrieg says:

    Went to Tom Nelson’s Senate website to verify his position on the current US war against Russia… I was very disappointed to discover that Tom Nelson is in favor of war against Russia… I will be scratching Lasry, Godlewski, and now Tom Nelson off my list of candidates for the US Senate.

    P.S. Mandela Barnes does not have a statement on his website regarding the US war against Russia… Will have to do more investigating…

  6. Duane says:

    Dare I say Steven Olikara? (If only because of his focus on getting money out of politics).

  7. says:

    I think practically anyone could beat Ron Johnson even if he isn’t indicted for his just revealed participation in Trump’s coup attempt. The real question is what do we win if our candidate wins. That’s why I’m supporting Tom Nelson. Nelson has taken clearer stands than any other candidate on the most important issues: climate change – green new deal; healthcare — medicare for all; voting rights — overthrow the fillibuster to reestablish the Voting Rights Act…. etc. Concrete actions rather than generalities.

  8. Keith says:

    Excellent critique of Lasry. He can also be attacked for getting a COVID shot the first day shots opened up for those 65 and older. He got roasted on Twitter when he tried to justify his actions. I can picture the ads portraying him knocking over old ladies on their walkers to get ahead of them in the shot line.

  9. says:

    Selecting a candidate based on who you think will be bullied most by the republicans is a terrible way to weigh the decision, a great way to run a mediocre candidate, and a sure fire way to make sure nothing improves.

    I’d much rather see a substantive discussion about which candidate’s policies will actually move this country forward and why, rather than hand-wringing about what republicans think.

  10. Franklyn Gimbel says:

    I truly believe that at the end of the day – Alex Lasry will give Ron the best battle – He is Young – fresh – well educated and his association with the Bucks is a plus to folks who cherish branded local Sports champions – candidates who are long time local politicians are treated like stale bread to Wisconsin voters. Being branded as an outsider with a significant net worth are viewed as good risks to represent Wisconsin – 🏆🏆

  11. NieWiederKrieg says:

    @ Franklyn Gimbel

    We would be much better off with Ron Johnson representing us in the US Senate than Alex Lasry… and that opinion comes from the most left wing Progressive voter in the State of Wisconsin.

    Goldman Sachs Lasry said that 80% of the contributions to his Senate campaign were less than $200 and that’s proof that he’s been chosen by the working class voters of Wisconsin… But when Lasry made that statement, I looked at his data on the Federal Election Commission website… The overwhelming majority of Lasry’s supporters were New York millionaires and billionaires that gave the maximum amount of cash to Golden Boy Lasry.

    The last thing Wisconsin needs is a lying Goldman Sachs banker that’s going to represent Wall Street billionaires from New York in the US Senate.

  12. Jaimcb says:

    So what if we have a mud fight? WI voters are getting used to it. I vote Barnes or Godlewski. Barnes has wide support and, as Bruce pointed out, he’s a nice, progressive, guy. Most of the money now being divided amongst the other worthy candidates would flow into Barnes’ (or Godlewski’s) counter attack ads, in any case.

    What we need in WI is a clearly progressive voice against a hugely conservative political machine, both locally and nationally. Any of the candidates would be good on issues facing congress, especially since Biden is hogtied right now on many of the big issues anyway. I reject the impulse to go with a more moderate candidate, second-guessing the electorate on that, and missing an opportunity to swing the discussion back, for godssake, toward the middle!

    Barnes would be, imo, a fresh face delivering a reasonable platform for needed change. RoJo can pick at his (perceived) weaknesses but it’s bad optics for a rich white guy to be attacking a working/middle class black guy.

    Equally true for Godlewski. As a woman she could stand out against the insane restrictions on women’s bodies (and issues yet to be decided by SCOTUS). She says she’s a fighter, well that’s what it will take to win over the yahoos who support women’s invisibility. Backed by Emily’s List is a major advantage because you get much more than endorsement—ya get a team of political ninjas as personal assistants, if they kick in early enough!

    Along with all the money and privilege Lasry inherited, somewhere along the line, he also inherited a healthy social conscience so I wouldn’t get mean-spirited about his run for Senate. But I agree that two rich white guys doesn’t quite work. He can always try again later, after he’s established some record here in WI.

    As for Tom Nelson, he doesn’t have name recognition at the state level and he doesn’t have the money. Period. Never mind the fact that he would make a great governor, if and when…

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