Democrats line up to challenge Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson
Christopher Wilson, Senior Writer January 18, 2022
Republican Sen. Ron Johnson’s decision to run for reelection has affirmed his position as a top target for Democrats in a race expected to be among the most hotly contested of the 2022 midterms.
Johnson, first elected to the Senate from Wisconsin during the tea party wave of 2010, had initially pledged to serve for only two terms but explained his change of mind in a Wall Street Journal op-ed and a campaign ad. He said that because Democrats have control of Congress and the presidency, he did not want to step down as he had originally promised.
“If you’re in a position to help make our country safer and stronger, would you just walk away?” Johnson said in the ad. “I decided I can’t. I’ll stand and fight for freedom.”
Wisconsin has been a key battleground state in recent years. Donald Trump carried the state by less than 1 percent of the vote in 2016, while Joe Biden won the state by a similarly narrow margin four years later. In 2018, Democrat Tony Evers was elected governor over incumbent Republican Scott Walker by just over 1 percent of the vote.
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report currently rates the 2022 contest a toss-up, while the University of Virginia Center for Politics gives Johnson a modest edge.
Polls in recent months have indicated that Johnson is unpopular with Wisconsinites. At the same time, Democrats in the Badger State will likely have their work cut out for them. The party in power tends to struggle in midterm elections, and Biden continues to be dogged by low approval ratings.
Over the course of his second term, Johnson has emerged as one of the most prominent promoters of conspiracy theories on both the 2020 election and the COVID-19 pandemic. He has continually downplayed the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol violence, calling it a largely “peaceful protest” by people “who loved this country” and “truly [respected] law enforcement.”
Johnson has also suggested that “fake Trump protesters” and “agent provocateurs” might have been responsible for the assault, and that the FBI has not been forthright about its knowledge of a possible attack. Last year, he repeatedly floated the idea that vaccines are unsafe while promoting unproven treatments for the disease, including mouthwash. His COVID misinformation led to a brief suspension of his YouTube account.
Days after Johnson announced he would be running again, the Senate Democrats’ main super-PAC announced a $1 million ad buy highlighting his broken two-term pledge as well as his push for a tax break that primarily benefited two billionaire families in Wisconsin.
Last summer, ProPublica reported that Johnson had said he would withhold his vote on the Republicans’ 2017 tax cut unless it included a special loophole that helped the two families, who had both contributed millions of dollars to his campaigns. Johnson told the outlet that his stance “had nothing to do with any donor or discussions with them” and instead stemmed from his belief that the tax code “needs to be simplified and rationalized.”
The question of who Democrats will select to challenge Johnson is still very much up in the air, with more than 10 candidates having declared for the primary, scheduled for Aug. 9. The major candidates who’ve created a gap in early fundraising are Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, state treasurer Sara Godlewski, NBA executive Alex Lasry and Outagamie County Executive Thomas Nelson.
Polling in the race has been sparse, but a November release from Data for Progress showed Barnes approaching 40 percent of the vote, which is in line with an internal survey recently released by the Barnes campaign.
Barnes, 35, served as a state legislator before winning the spot as Evers’s running mate in 2018. A Milwaukee native, he is the first Black lieutenant governor in Wisconsin history. Evers appointed him to run the state’s climate task force, and Barnes was outspoken in the aftermath of the 2020 police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha.
Barnes was critical of law enforcement when prosecutors failed to file charges against the officer who shot Blake. He also questioned why Kyle Rittenhouse, an Illinois teenager who killed two men during a violent protest following Blake’s shooting, was not immediately arrested. Barnes likewise criticized Rittenhouse’s acquittal.
“Over the last few weeks, many dreaded the outcome we just witnessed. The presumption of innocence until proven guilty is what we should expect from our judicial system, but that standard is not always applied equally,” Barnes said. “We have seen so many Black and brown youth killed, only to be put on trial posthumously, while the innocence of Kyle Rittenhouse was virtually demanded by the judge.”
It was a contrast to the statement issued by Johnson, who said, “I believe justice has been served in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial. I hope everyone can accept the verdict, remain peaceful, and let the community of Kenosha heal and rebuild.”
Godlewski, who entered the Senate race last April, points to her successful statewide run in 2018 as proof of her electability. Prior to running for office, she successfully advocated against a ballot measure that would have eliminated the treasurer office entirely. In October, Godlewski invested $1 million of her own money into her campaign, telling the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, “I am putting my money where my mouth is.”
“As someone who has run two successful statewide campaigns, I know firsthand winning in Wisconsin is tough,” she said. “Ron Johnson, Mitch McConnell, and dark money groups are going to do whatever it takes to win, and I am not going to allow them to outwork us or outspend us.”
Lasry and Nelson were two of the earliest entrants into the race. Lasry is on leave from his position with the Milwaukee Bucks, which won the 2021 NBA Championship and are co-owned by his father, Marc, a billionaire hedge fund manager. A former staffer for the Obama White House, Lasry has also argued that he was instrumental in bringing the 2020 Democratic National Convention to Milwaukee.
Nelson served in the state Legislature, including as Democratic majority leader, before first winning the Outagamie County executive seat in 2011. The Wisconsin native supports Medicare for All as well as the Green New Deal climate package.
Barnes has received endorsements from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., while Godlewski has earned the support of EMILY’s List, a well-funded Democratic PAC. Lasry, meanwhile, has won support from the Teamsters Union, and Nelson the endorsement of the Wisconsin chapter of the progressive climate group Sunrise.
All four of the leading Democratic candidates have called for an end to the Senate filibuster, which makes it more difficult to pass legislation at the federal level.