Lasry’s Quitting Race Raises Questions
Did Democrats miss a chance to vet Mandela Barnes in primary for US Senate?
The decision by Alex Lasry last week to withdraw from the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate was, to say the least, quite a surprise. Here is a guy who had spent some $15 million on his campaign, was in second place in the polls, and had the ability, through his own wealth and that of his billionaire father, to continue spending heavily. Why not keep going?
Lasry explained that he would have had to run negative ads against the Democratic front runner, Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes, and didn’t want to do that. It was the same explanation that Kevin Nicholson gave for withdrawing from the Republican primary for governor, but that was very difficult to believe, as I’ve previously written. The more likely explanation is that his main financial backer, Richard Uihlein, pulled the plug on Nicholson’s funding.
Lasry’s father Marc Lasry is one of three main owners of the Milwaukee Bucks. Alex Lasry was being paid $300,000 as an executive. He was also gifted a $50 million trust, which includes a stake in the team that grew significantly in value thanks to a taxpayer subsidy of at least $700 million for a new arena that helped the franchise grow four-fold in value.
But with that windfall comes some political complications. Democrats in the Legislature wouldn’t support the subsidy unless the Bucks management agreed to negotiate with the unions and support the idea of a $15 minimum wage for workers. More recently the Bucks have asked the city to support a plan to build a new music venue on land where the old Bradley Center stood, in partnership with FPC Live. And the team and the city jointly built a parking garage which will be used for a new hotel the team is building.
Some readers may recall that back in the early 1990s then-Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig proposed that the team would pay to build a new arena. Why would he want to do this when nearly every other baseball stadium in America was subsidized? Because Selig hated dealing with local officials who oversaw County Stadium, insiders suggested. Ultimately he decided the team could not afford this approach and was forced to deal with a bevy of local and state officials, some of whom he later condemned.
Moreover, Lasry’s campaign was run by Mike Tate, a longtime Wisconsin Democratic Party insider and Lasry’s spokesperson was Nation Consulting, which has handled the campaigns of many Democrats, including numerous Milwaukee Common Council members, Mayor Cavalier Johnson, County Executive David Crowley and a Democratic candidate for Secretary of State, Alexia Sabor. The idea of a divisive Democratic campaign might not have thrilled these folks, either.
Lasry’s decision resulted in a kind of coronation for Barnes, as it followed the withdrawal of Tom Nelson and preceded Sarah Godlewski‘s decision to quit the race. Barnes has just announced he received 21,000 campaign donations totaling $1.1 million in the past week.
But the result has been a primary that did no vetting of the front-runner. Back in December Jessica Taylor, a Senate elections editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said this: “Republicans are, I think, salivating to face Barnes. They argue that he’s too progressive for the state.” A GOP insider tells me the party is “drooling” at the prospect of running against Barnes.
There is no doubt Barnes has some baggage. He may face Republican ads claiming he favors defunding police, though his position hasn’t been that sweeping: he has called for taking money from “over-bloated budgets in police departments” and spending it on neighborhood services. And there is a tweet of Barnes holding up a t-shirt with the slogan “Abolish ICE” that may figure in an ad. (Barnes has said he does not favor this.) And Barnes was quoted saying “The United States of America is the most wealthy, is the most powerful nation on Earth… because of forced labor on stolen land.”
To Dan Adams, a Democrat who oversees , a nonprofit that periodically polls on local policy issues and candidates, Lasry’s decision to bow out of the campaign was a loss for the party. “Primaries that don’t devolve into a mud-throwing contest could actually help a political party — providing a dry run for ground game, voter ID and turn out. Lasry’s quitting robbed the party of this test.”
But it may be that Lasry’s only chance to win was a mud throwing contest, which would have also stuck to him and the Milwaukee Bucks team he represented.
Beyond the big lift Lasry’s decision was for Barnes, it was good news for Republican gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Kleefisch, because a non-competitive Democratic primary could mean more voters will vote in the Republican primary. Given the unpopularity of Ron Johnson (13% of Republicans, 12% of those who lean Republican and 43% of independents had an unfavorable view of him in the last Marquette poll), some voters may have been tempted to vote in the Democratic primary to pick the candidate they thought had the best chance of beating Johnson. That might have been particularly true in the WOW counties of Waukesha, Washington and Ozaukee, where many Republican voters abandoned Donald Trump in 2020.
And Kleefisch can’t beat her opponent Tim Michels, some have predicted, without winning big in the WOW counties. Right now her campaign is very glad — perhaps more than Barnes — that Lasry dropped out of the race.
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