By Jim EllisJuly 22, 2021 — As expected, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (D) declared his candidacy Tuesday for a Wisconsin Senate seat. Incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson (R) has yet to say if he will seek a third term (when he first ran in 2010, he committed to serving only two terms) but there is no question whatever the senator decides that the Wisconsin race will be highly competitive and become a national campaign.
Before the eventual Democratic nominee even gets the opportunity to face Sen. Johnson, he or she must traverse a difficult primary battle that won’t conclude until August of next year. Already vying for the party nomination in addition now to Lt. Gov. Barnes are state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, state Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee), Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, and Milwaukee Bucks basketball club senior executive and former Obama White House aide Alex Lasry. Still others may enter.
Wisconsin has been the site of very close election in the latter part of the decade. Two presidential campaigns and a gubernatorial race fell within one percentage point (2016 Presidential: Trump: 47.2 – 46.5 percent; 2020 Presidential: Biden 49.4 – 48.8 percent; 2018 Governor: Tony Evers-D: 49.5 – 48.4 percent; 2016 US Senate: Johnson: 50-47 percent), and another photo finish is expected for 2022.
Polling will again be another question mark since the survey research community’s joint record in Wisconsin has been poor since 2016.
In the Trump-Clinton race, pollsters ran 32 polls and Donald Trump led in none, yet he won the state. In the 2016 Senate race, Sen. Johnson was ahead only once in 29 public polls, yet claimed a three-point re-election victory when the actual votes were tabulated. Again, in the 2020 presidential race, while correctly predicting that Biden would carry Wisconsin, their average margin was way off the mark, finding the Democrat leading by a mean average of 6.7 percentage points in eight polls conducted after Oct. 20. The actual Biden victory margin was just beyond 22,000 votes.
Barnes was elected on a ticket with Democratic gubernatorial ticket in 2018. He had previously served two terms representing part of Milwaukee in the state Assembly but would lose a nomination battle for state Senate. In his announcement address, Mandela said, “I believe we need to build a better America where the opportunity I found isn’t so rare,” thus setting the tone for his campaign.
Just entering the Democratic primary, Lt. Gov. Barnes obviously didn’t file a second quarter financial disclosure report. His opponents did, however. Lasry has been the top fundraiser since Jan. 1, with over $2 million in receipts and a cash-on-hand figure of $1.04 million. Godlewski raised just over $513,000 and has a bit more than $243,000 in her campaign account. Nelson: $504,045; $406,356, and Sen. Larson: $51,480; $55,728.
For his part, Sen. Johnson raised just over $1 million for the quarter but raised $3.3 million during his out-cycle years and holds $1.7 million in his campaign account. These figures are competitive but not earth shattering and do little in the way of providing a clue as to whether he will seek re-election.
Should the senator decide to retire, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Green Bay) is poised to run. In a safe congressional seat, he had a very active fundraising second quarter, now raising $1.3 million since the beginning of the year with a whopping $2.28 million in the bank. Watch for him to make a statewide move should an opening occur.
With the Senate currently deadlocked at 50-50, every race is critically important next year and each has the potential of being the “majority maker.” There is little doubt, regardless of the general election pairing, that the Wisconsin race will go down to the wire and go a long way toward determining which party will be able to declare outright Senate control in 2023.