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Competing styles and alliances shape US Senate, governor primaries in Wisconsin

Closely watched midterm elections in the midwestern battleground could prove consequential for Democrats’ majorities in Congress and proving who has real influence within the state GOP.

(CN) — Wisconsin’s upcoming primary elections, in which political newcomers and establishment candidates are vying for seats in the U.S. Senate and the governor’s mansion, arrive amid Democrats facing midterm vulnerability and Republicans facing an internal identity crisis.

Nineteen months into his term, approval ratings for President Joe Biden are low, in part fueled by persistent inflation and much of his signature legislation having stalled with an unreliable 50-50 partisan split in the Senate, stoking fears of a midterm backlash against his party.

In the Badger State’s Democratic Senate primary, part of multiple open primaries on Aug. 9, the once crowded field has narrowed lately, leaving Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes as the clear favorite since contenders Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry and State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski all dropped out of the race and endorsed Barnes within five days of each other this past week.

Remaining to challenge Barnes is Steven Olikara, a 32-year-old founder of the Millennial Action Project with an anti-establishment platform who said during a recent debate that “if you’re not talking about changing the system, you’re wasting people’s time” and fired off a tweet after Godlewski dropped out of the race on July 29 calling out the “political industrial complex” for manipulating the race.

Barnes, a 35-year-old Milwaukee native, served four years in the Wisconsin State Assembly before being elected as the state’s first Black lieutenant governor in 2018, an election in which Democratic Governor Tony Evers defeated two-term Republican Governor Scott Walker and Godlewski was elected treasurer. If elected, Barnes would be Wisconsin’s first Black senator.

The son of a third-shift assembly line worker and a public school teacher, Barnes’ publicity has stressed his middle class bona fides, and middle class tax relief and pro-union, build-it-in-America agendas are central to his campaign. He is endorsed by Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and multiple union and agricultural leaders.

Barnes, similar to the other Democratic candidates, champions liberal priorities like expanding the earned income tax credit, ending the filibuster and partisan gerrymandering, passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, protecting abortion access and LGBTQ rights and building green infrastructure to tackle climate change.

But the real priority for Barnes, and Democrats at large, is besting Republican incumbent Ron Johnson, a plastics company executive first elected in 2010 during the right-wing Tea Party phenomenon. He has become a bullhorn for conspiracy theories involving Covid-19 vaccines and has cast doubt on the House of Representatives' select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, which implicated him in an attempt to hand off fake electors to then-vice president Mike Pence in Donald Trump's attempt to overturn the 2020 election results.

Anthony Chergosky, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, said “[Barnes] has quickly emerged as a talented politician who is very well liked among the Democratic Party base,” but also said that beating Johnson is “issue one, two and three for Democrats.”

Chergosky says Johnson, for whom “polarization is a feature, not a bug,” could present advantages and disadvantages for liberals. On the one hand, Chergosky says, Johnson has an intensely loyal base among the conservative grassroots, but his polarizing nature also makes him uniquely despised among Democrats, leaving both sides motivated.

A Marquette University Law School poll from June showed Barnes with a slight 46-44 edge over Johnson, and it showed him polling better than his Democratic peers with independents in a race against the incumbent. Federal Election Commission data shows Johnson has raised twice as much money as Barnes in 2022 and has more than three times as much campaign cash on hand.

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In the contest for Wisconsin’s governorship, the Republican field looking to oust Evers is largely aligned on issues like abortion, Second Amendment rights, law and order, school choice and what they paint as Evers’ weak leadership with Covid-19 lockdowns and violent protests in Kenosha in 2020.

The current frontrunners are Rebecca Kleefisch, the lieutenant governor during Walker’s administration, and Tim Michels, a former Army Ranger, head of a family-owned construction company and relative political outsider.

Kleefisch has put at the forefront of her campaign the legacy of the Walker administration, which most prominently featured the controversial passage of Act 10, a 2011 law that gutted the collective bargaining power of most public sector unions and sparked large demonstrations in which protesters occupied the state capitol building in Madison. Kleefisch has touted this as proof of her standing up to the “liberal mob.”

Walker has endorsed Kleefisch and appeared in her TV ads. She is also backed by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and the Tavern League, two of the state’s most powerful lobbies, as well as conservative state legislators like Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and, as of Thursday, Pence.

Michels, on the other hand, was endorsed by Trump in June, a nod that immediately boosted his polling position into a virtual toss-up with Kleefisch. He has pumped millions in personal funds into a campaign largely based on his experience and success as a businessman, military service and status as a non-career politician. The 59-year-old has offered that his management of Michels Corporation’s many divisions and 8,000 employees, and the fact he is not beholden to Madison politicos or special interests, makes him uniquely qualified to disrupt the status quo and fix state government’s problems.

What has emerged, in a sense, is a contest over who is the kingmaker for the Wisconsin GOP: is it Walker, whose hardball administration significantly altered the tenor of Wisconsin politics a decade ago, or is it Trump, whose bellicose, disruptive brand and personal obsessions have reshaped the image and imagination of Republicans nationwide?

“This really is a battle for the soul of the national Republican Party played out on a state level here in Wisconsin,” said Jerald Podair, a professor of history and American studies at Lawrence University, though he, Burden and Chergosky all agree the election is more a matter of different styles than different priorities.

Election integrity, a voting reform cause fueled by Trump’s continued false assertions that widespread fraud cheated him out of reelection in 2020, is promoted by both Michels and Kleefisch. Both have amplified these claims — Kleefisch reiterated at a recent debate that she thinks the election was “rigged” and she has “plenty of evidence” to back it up — and support restrictions popular with conservatives like banning drop boxes and other commonplace aspects of absentee voting.

Burden said “this is an issue that won’t go away” for the candidates, not the least because of pressure from the party base forcing them to take aggressive stances on it.

Neither are as aggressive on the issue as outlier candidate Tim Ramthun, a state lawmaker who is the only Republican candidate pushing to decertify the 2020 election results, despite the fact that legal experts and many members of his own party say the move is impossible and pointless. Trump called Vos in mid-July to once again press the issue with him, though Vos is not in favor of it.

According to the June Marquette poll, Evers is polling ahead of Kleefisch and Michels, with a slightly closer race projected for the former.

Wisconsin’s Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul is also up for reelection this fall. Voters on Aug. 9 will decide his Republican challenger between former State Assembly Representative Adam Jarchow, Fond du Lac County District Attorney Eric Toney and Chippewa Falls-based civil rights attorney Karen Mueller.

This primary cycle also decides partisan contests for Wisconsin’s lieutenant governor, secretary of state and state treasurer, as well as Milwaukee County Sheriff and other positions.

All this will take place in politically mercurial Wisconsin, a purple swing state where elections — including Evers’ win in 2018 and Biden’s in 2020 — are routinely decided by slim margins.

“Wisconsin’s averageness as a state makes it a real bellwether, and that’s why people are watching here,” Podair said.

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