A Preview of the 2022 Elections in Wisconsin (Part I: The U.S. Senate)
We're one year away from the midterms in Wisconsin, so let's take a look ahead. First, we break down the U.S. Senate race. Is Ron Johnson running? Is Mandela Barnes the frontrunner?
It’s mid-November in the year 2021, and that means we’re now less than a year away from the 2022 midterm elections.
This is going to be an extremely important year for Wisconsin, with the elections for the offices of Senator and Governor sure to draw a tremendous amount of national attention at the top of the ticket, there are key races up and down the ballot that will be making a huge impact, and there’s a race for Milwaukee’s first new elected mayor in nearly two decades adding some extra spice to an already heated election year.
Let’s take a look ahead at what’s coming between now and Nov. 8, 2022.
First, the big picture.
In nearly every midterm election going back decades, the party that’s in the White House does poorly. Recent history has seen big midterm swings: Democrats took the House in 2018, Republicans did well in 2014 and did really well in 2010, and Democrats won big in 2006. Since 1946, the president’s party has lost an average of 27 House seats in the midterms. On balance, Republicans hold a distinct advantage going into 2022.
The recent gubernatorial election in Virginia, where Republican Glenn Youngkin was victorious in a state Joe Biden won by 10% in 2020, was perhaps a harbinger of a tough year ahead for the Democrats.
And yet on the same night in Wisconsin, the Mequon-Thiensville School Board recall challenge — which had the backing of the Republican gubernatorial frontrunner and the biggest conservative financiers in the state — turned out to be a huge flop for the right. Recall challengers did not win a single precinct in any of the four races. It’s the latest piece of evidence that the Milwaukee suburbs are continuing to shift to the left, and it could be a sign of some underlying weaknesses for Republicans in Wisconsin.
Not all of this is linear, nothing is inevitable, and conventional wisdom might not mean the same in this time of covid and constant political turmoil as it has in years past. But Democrats undoubtedly have history working against them for the general election in the fall of 2022.
Now, in terms of a timeline for next year, there are no major races on the ballot for the Spring Election. Not yet, that is. There is a chance the Milwaukee mayoral election could be held at that time — stay tuned for Part II for more on that race — but after six consecutive years with a race for Wisconsin State Supreme Court Justice on the spring ballot from 2015 to 2020, voters get another break in 2022 (though a big race looms in 2023 that could determine the balance of the court).
The Aug. 9 primary will be a particularly important one. There will likely be heated statewide races for senator (particularly with the Democrats) and governor (particularly with the Republicans), as well as attorney general (but just for Republicans) and lieutenant governor (for both parties). An open congressional seat in Wisconsin’s 3rd District, with the planned retirement of Democratic Rep. Ron Kind, will mean there will be a key primary held for that race.
The usual slate of congressional and state legislative primaries will be important parts of what’s on the ballot, as well. And then it’ll all come down to the Nov. 8 general election.
So, with one year out before that election, let’s take a look forward at some of the key races that will be on the ballot next year.
(Note: With districts for state legislative and congressional races not yet settled, we won’t be previewing those races just yet.)
THE RACE FOR U.S. SENATOR
The big question: Is Ron Johnson going to run for re-election?
Probably, yes. We’ve made it no secret how we feel about Wisconsin’s senior senator here at The Recombobulation Area. We called for his resignation on Jan. 7, and wrote about his record of corruption, cruelty, incompetence and complete disregard for the well-being of his constituents at a time of crisis even before he spent much of 2021 as one of the nation’s chief insurrection whitewashers and pandemic-extending vaccine denialists. He is not fit to serve in office, and seeing him leave and choose not to seek re-election would be terrific news for our state.
It doesn’t look like that’s going to happen — although, predicting what Ron Johnson is going to do next does seem like a fool’s errand. But all signs are pointing toward him breaking his 2016 pledge to serve just two terms, and instead running for a third.
Johnson has been underestimated at the ballot box in Wisconsin. In his two statewide victories in 2010 and 2016, both against former senator Russ Feingold, he outperformed expectations — and in 2016, outperformed Trump at the top of the ticket. While 2010 and 2016 were probably the two most favorable years for Republicans nationwide in recent history, Johnson’s ability to lock in with a fairly far-right voter base in Wisconsin while maintaining support among mainstream Republicans should not be overlooked. Despite everything he’s done — particularly since the beginning of the pandemic when he’s shown himself to be among the worst leaders America has to offer — given incumbency, the expected midterm backlash, and yes, Johnson’s political skill, he should be viewed as the favorite in this race, no matter the Democratic opponent.
And while a favorite he might be — Sabato’s Crystal Ball has Wisconsin as a “Lean R”; Cook Political Report has the race as a “Toss-up” -- he’s not going to be an overwhelming one. This is going to be an extremely competitive race, as is almost every statewide race in Wisconsin. Johnson has given Wisconsin Democrats plenty of ammunition in a run against him, and his poll numbers are pretty far under water in the latest Marquette University Law School Poll. While a surprising number of Wisconsin voters still don't have an opinion of the senior senator (a topic we continue to have our eye on here at The Recombobulation Area), his “unfavorable” number is as high as it’s ever been in the poll, his net-favorability number is minus-6, and he does poorly with moderates and independents.
Also in the late-October poll, 52% of voters said they would vote for someone else for U.S. Senate, and only 20% said they would “definitely vote to re-elect Ron Johnson” (36% said they would “definitely vote for someone else).
So, there’s plenty working against Johnson in a re-election campaign.
If he does surprise us and chooses not to run, things could get messy in a hurry for Republicans. They’d have to navigate a quick pivot and field primaries for two statewide races. Uihlein-backed candidate Kevin “I’ll run for anything!” Nicholson would probably shift his sights from the gubernatorial primary to a senate primary, and other candidates that might currently be eyeing the governor’s race could follow. Congressman Mike Gallagher’s name will surely come up, given his success in his own district and his strong fundraising numbers, but it’s unclear how he’d fare in a primary where Trump’s shadow looms large, and at just 37 years of age, this would not be his only opportunity to run for higher office.
At this point, though, I would be surprised if it were anyone other than Ron Johnson running as the Republican in this race. So, just prepare yourself for what exactly a Johnson campaign would mean in 2022. It’s going to be something else.
THE DEMOCRATIC PRIMARY FOR U.S. SENATE
This has become Mandela Barnes’ race to lose. The lieutenant governor has been quite strong out of the gate, and has consolidated a broad base of support across Wisconsin in the early months of this race. He is certainly the frontrunner in the primary.
There was a certain level of inevitably to Barnes being in an early lead in this race, but perhaps not to this extent. On name recognition alone — as a statewide office holder and the first Black lieutenant governor in Wisconsin history — he was going to give him an early edge on many of the other candidates. But since declaring, he’s led all Democratic candidates in fundraising, with the vast majority coming from individual contributions, and has earned big-name national endorsements ranging from progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren to moderate Rep. Jim Clyburn, whose endorsement was key to Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential primary. He has exceeded expectations in the early stage. Barnes is in great shape right now.
A rather large field of candidates have also declared for this race, but just four have made much noise on the campaign trail thus far. Along with Barnes, State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, and Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson are each in the running.
Gillian Battino, a Wausau-area radiologist, and Steven Olikara, founder and CEO of the Millennial Action Project, also have some visibility in this race, but not enough to be considered true competitors as of now.
Barnes might be ahead, but there’s a lot of race still to be run. He could potentially face criticism from the more moderate wing of the party, though that is merely speculative, as that hasn’t really materialized as of yet. But however it happens, this race is bound to heat up one way or another.
Out of Godlewski, Lasry and Nelson, my pick for the most likely to emerge as the most viable contender from that group would be Godlewski.
Godlewski has won a statewide race, which despite being for a State Treasurer office where duties have been significantly limited, is still a statewide race. She was on the ballot and did receive 1,324,110 votes, and won by 2.1% — a margin greater than Gov. Tony Evers or Attorney General Josh Kaul. That can’t be discounted.
Not to be overlooked, too, is that women comprise the majority of voters among Wisconsin Democrats. Women have powered the progressive winning streak in the Trump Era that’s seen eight of the last nine statewide races go in favor of the Dem-backed candidate. Godlewski is also generally well-liked among state Democrats, and has been active in her role despite its limited capacity.
Godlewski’s wealth could be both a positive and a negative in the race. The positive could obviously be the fact that she can do things like put $1 million into her campaign (which she just did in October); the negative could be how having estimated assets well into the tens of millions goes over with the more working class voters in the Democratic Party in Wisconsin.
Having deep pockets makes Alex Lasry a wildcard in this race, too. Early endorsements from Milwaukee leaders like County Executive David Crowley and Common Council President Cavalier Johnson serves as evidence that he’s built genuine connections while in Milwaukee, both in his roles with the Bucks and in leading the charge to land the DNC.
But the jump from never holding elected office to running for U.S. Senate is an astronomical one for Lasry. Having the bulk of your resume be in a company owned by your billionaire father — even a company as well-liked as the NBA Champion Milwaukee Bucks — doesn’t exactly display a wealth of experience necessary to win statewide office and serve in the nation’s highest legislative body. Perhaps a better route for Lasry, whose ambitions to run for office have been no secret, could have been to follow a path of someone like Chris Abele, also a son of a billionaire, who became a fixture in the nonprofit and business world in Milwaukee before running for Milwaukee County Executive in 2011.
As for Nelson, he has been running hard in this race for more than a year, delivering a decidedly progressive message. But the Outagamie County Executive has been unable to cultivate broad support among unions (largely going for Lasry) or nationwide progressive organizations (going for Barnes), both of which would be key to boosting his chances. And even though it came in a bad year for Democrats, his 2016 blowout loss in the 8th District congressional election against Mike Gallagher is a red flag for his aspirations for higher office. I am generally bearish on candidates who run for a higher office, lose, and then try a different office when the opportunity presents itself. The “progressive from a more rural area” lane tends to be better in theory than in practice, since it’s hard to see how he’d connect with a more diverse Democratic base in Milwaukee and Madison, especially with a progressive like Barnes in the race. And being at a fundraising disadvantage to the rest of the top contenders, it seems like quite the uphill climb for Nelson.
Things have a way of breaking in unpredictable ways, and any of Godlewski, Lasry or Nelson could ultimately be the nominee come August. There’s also a real chance that Barnes runs away with this one and the August primary is merely a formality.
Much could still change, of course, but in all likelihood, the most likely race for U.S. Senate to be on the ballot next fall will be Mandela Barnes vs. Ron Johnson.
Coming soon: Part II: Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Mayor of Milwaukee
Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes the award-winning column, The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The Daily Beast, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.