Democrats in Wisconsin think they have the perfect chance to take out one of Donald Trump’s closest allies in the Senate. But to do it, they’ll have to find a candidate who can balance knocking back a conspiracy theorist without alienating voters in an intensely polarized state.
Four Democrats are considered the candidates most likely to win the nomination and go up against Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, who announced he would run for reelection this month despite his long-held promise to only serve two terms. Democrats see him as more vulnerable than other Republicans in an election cycle broadly viewed as favorable to the GOP.
The state, which President Joe Biden won in 2020 after it went to Donald Trump in 2016, offers a spread of the dynamics happening on the national level: extreme polarization, a Trumpian foil for Democrats, and a competitive electorate exhausted by the pandemic. The August primary offers Democrats one of their first high-profile tests of just how forcefully they should counter conspiracy theories around the election and COVID-19 that have quickly spread among Trump’s base and that have been mirrored by a number of politicians who’ve received endorsements from the former president.
“Wisconsin has a lot of kind of microcosms of national dynamics. There’s a pretty deep partisan division here, but also a very pragmatic streak,” state party Chair Ben Wikler told BuzzFeed News. “Making the case that you’re running as sort of an outcast and being a kind of a practical problem solver is a winning formula in Wisconsin.”
Democrats are banking on Johnson no longer being able to make that case. Early messaging from the left is that Johnson, a onetime political pariah who unexpectedly beat out a longtime establishment Democrat and then held him off in his next election, has become deeply entrenched in Washington politics. An ad released by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, accuses Johnson of looking out for himself and his megadonors rather than his constituents.
But there are additional arguments to be made against him, including his rampant use of conspiracy theories.
Here are just a few examples: In late 2020, Johnson, as chair of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, held a hearing that invited witnesses who approached the COVID-19 pandemic in an unscientific way and spread misinformation. After the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, he also falsely claimed that “provocateurs” caused the violence at the Capitol rather than Trump supporters. It’s been a long but not lonely arch for Johnson, from the tea party breakthrough candidate who had never held political office prior to a far-right and high-profile conspiracy theorist during Trump’s presidency. Months before Johnson announced he would run for reelection, he received an endorsement from former president Donald Trump, who encouraged him to go for it: “Run, Ron, Run!”
Still months out from the August primary, Democratic candidates are making themselves known to the electorate. The top tier is made up of state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, the Milwaukee Bucks’ senior vice president Alex Lasry, and Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson.
“I think it is pretty early for them to be trying to distinguish themselves [from each other], and I do think that Democrats in the state of Wisconsin would like to defeat Ron Johnson,” Lilly Goren, a professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, told BuzzFeed News. “They’re maybe not necessarily flinging mud at each other, so much as trying to — even at this point before the primary is over — be sort of attacking Johnson.”
Two of the candidates — Godlewski, a former defense contractor, and Barnes, the first Black lieutenant governor in the state and a former state assemblymember — have previously won statewide races for their current positions. Lasry, whose résumé is speckled with past involvement in politics including advising in the Obama administration, is running as a progressive businessperson. And Nelson touts serving as a Bernie Sanders delegate in the 2020 Democratic National Convention.
Several national figures have already weighed in on the primary: Barnes has notched endorsements that include Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, as well as House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn. A November poll of Wisconsin likely voters conducted by the progressive think tank Data for Progress showed Barnes leading over the closest competitor by 23 points. (Although 29% of those surveyed also said they weren’t sure who they would vote for if the primary were held the next day.) The Barnes campaign also released an internal poll at the start of the year showing a similar advantage.
On the national level, Democrats are looking to make heavy investments in Wisconsin. The DSCC has not made an endorsement (an aide at the DSCC said that they are assessing challenger campaigns and have not made endorsements in any of them), but already made an ad buy pegged around Johnson’s announcement that he would run. The state is also part of the DSCC’s “Defend the Majority” program, a $30 million investment targeting nine states and aimed at ground field organizing, which the DSCC has boasted as the biggest investment of its kind made this early in a campaign cycle.
It will not be easy for whoever ends up the Democratic nominee. The Cook Political Report has the race listed as a toss-up, and it will undoubtedly be an expensive and exhausting one. But neither party will want to leave anything to chance: According to statewide race data compiled by Joe Zepecki, a Democratic consultant in the state, 4 of the last 11 statewide races with more than one candidate have been within 30,000 votes, including the presidential race between Biden and Trump.
“There are benefits to polarization,” Zepecki told BuzzFeed News. “Both sides have gotten so good at knowing where their base is and how to turn them out, and [that’s] why you see so many close elections.”
Democrats have had a good recent streak in getting their candidates elected to statewide office. Currently, Tony Evers, who is up for reelection this year, holds the governor’s office, and Tammy Baldwin, reelected in 2018, has the state’s other Senate seat. Prior to Johnson, a Republican hadn’t held a Senate seat in the state since 1993.
But they don’t need to look any further than Johnson’s presence in the Senate, Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton, and Scott Walker defeating his recall election in 2012 for evidence of the strong Republican presence.
“I think this could easily swing to the Democrats. I think Ron Johnson will also be a tough opponent,” Ben Nuckels, a Democratic consultant in Wisconsin, told BuzzFeed News. “The US Senate race is going to be very close, and the reason Democrats want Ron Johnson as the GOP nominee is because he is far easier to beat than some of the other candidates who were considering running.
“The national trends could dramatically affect the race here.”