Six Democrats make their case for taking Ron Johnson’s Senate seat

By: - June 30, 2021 6:30 am
"I voted" stickers in Primrose (Photo by Henry Redman)

“I voted” stickers in Primrose (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

A lot of Democrats are itching to run against Wisconsin’s Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, who has closely allied himself with Donald Trump, made a name for himself by promoting a wide range of conspiracy theories, and blocked pandemic relief for his constituents while helping to craft tax breaks that specifically benefited his own business. Just this week, he drew widespread criticism for holding a press conference to publicize rare, adverse effects from COVID vaccines, which Gov. Tony Evers described as “reckless and irresponsible.”

On Tuesday, the first time since they declared their candidacies, five Democratic candidates and one likely candidate met for a virtual question and answer session. The forum, hosted by WisPolitics, offered a chance to make a side-by-side comparison of the candidates, who mostly agreed on the issues, but strove nonetheless to differentiate themselves from each other. Not present was Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes who is widely expected to get into the race. 

Participants included State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, state Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) and Milwaukee Bucks CEO Alex Lasry, who helped organize the Democratic National Convention in 2020, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, Steven Olikara, the founder of the Millennial Action Project and Wausau radiologist Gillian Battino. All except for Olikara have declared they are running.

On the same day that President Joe Biden was visiting LaCrosse to pump up support for his bipartisan infrastructure deal, WisPolitics president Jeff Mayers asked each of the candidates if they would vote for the bill, which has proved divisive among Democrats.

Sarah Godlewski (Screenshot | WisPolitics)
Sarah Godlewski (Screenshot | WisPolitics)

Godlewski pointed to Wisconsin’s polluted waterways, lack of broadband and crumbling roads and said, “We have to do everything we can to get this through,” but also supporting the process through which Biden and progressive Dems are hoping to add back affordable child care, paid family leave and climate action.

The other candidates gave similar responses, supporting the idea of passing the less ambitious compromise legislation Biden negotiated (and which Republicans have warned they might not support after Biden said that, as a condition of signing it, he would insist that Congress also pass a separate reconciliation bill enacting the rest of his agenda.) Biden has walked back his remarks, but it is now in doubt whether the infrastructure deal can get all 10 Republican votes it needs to overcome a filibuster.

Sen, Chris Larson (Screenshot | WisPolitics)
Sen, Chris Larson (Screenshot | WisPolitics)

“I think that we should be pushing for as much as we can in the narrow Senate, but absolutely trying to push for even more down the road,” said Larson, who called an infrastructure bill that doesn’t address the problems caused by climate change “just tinkering around the edges.”

Lasry said he would “absolutely,” “100%” vote for the bipartisan bill, noting, “it’s a lot of money, it’s one of the biggest investments in infrastructure in our nation’s history. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t also be pushing for the reconciliation package and to make sure that we’re able to pass the American Families Plan.”

Tom Nelson (Screenshot | WisPolitics)
Tom Nelson (Screenshot | WisPolitics)

Nelson took the most progressive pole, saying that his position is “very similar to that of [Vermont] Sen. [Bernie] Sanders,” and called it “absolutely crucial … that we tie the infrastructure bill to the Green New Deal and that we use this opportunity to address not just the country’s infrastructure needs but also the climate crisis.” 

Olikara distanced himself from that position, instead promoting the art of the possible. “This isn’t hard,” he said, calling the bill “the difference between Wisconsinites getting the infrastructure they need and not getting it.” 

Steven Olikara (Screenshot | WisPolitics)
Steven Olikara (Screenshot | WisPolitics)

“It’s part of my larger, systemic critique of politics,” he added. “The reason why bills like this are ballooned so out of shape is because of how gridlocked and divided our politics are. So there’s a feeling like we have to get everything in this one bill because it’s our only shot.”

Battino called the compromise legislation “a step in the right direction” and pointed to lead pipe remediation. She added, awkwardly, that the bill includes provisions “addressing things that affect racially challenged, I mean our racial populations.”

All of the candidates supported protecting voting rights, ending partisan gerrymandering and doing away with the filibuster. Olikara pointed out that his organization helped draft election reform legislation currently before Congress. “We need a new politics that allows the working class and non- traditional candidates to run for office and that’s what this elections bill is speaking to,” he said, touting his group’s work to end partisan gerrymandering, pass campaign finance reforms, expand voting rights and ensure automatic voter registration. “These are all reforms where I’ve built bipartisan consensus on and got those reforms over the finish line,” he said. “So I’ll fully support this and be its biggest champion in the U.S. Senate.

All of the candidates supported expanding access to health care, with Lasry calling for a “public option,” Nelson for “Medicare for all,” while Olikara called for investing in preventive health care to drive down costs and allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.

Gillian Battino (Screenshot | WisPolitics)
Gillian Battino (Screenshot | WisPolitics)

Battino said that, as a physician, she believes “every human being deserves awesome health care.” A public option is not enough, she said, to ensure that everyone has access to the full array of high quality health care options. She told the story of her father, who got strep throat as a child and died when he was 29 years old of rheumatic heart disease related to the strep infection. “He could have been treated right with antibiotics,” she said. “Simple. That will continue to happen. This is still a disease of poverty.” A single-payer Medicare-for-all system is a “no brainer” she added. Under a Medicare-for-all system, “we know that we can reduce our costs and cover everyone. We know this. So I think the only reason we don’t do it is because lobbyists and dark money are pushing against it.”

Godlewski praised the Affordable Care Act and warned against scrapping it and starting over. “So we have to expand Medicaid, we have to expand Medicare and, yes, we need universal coverage through a public option,” she said.

Larson said “count me in for Medicare for all” “as somebody who grew up with asthma since I was 5 years old, found the hard way that I was uninsurable.”

On immigration, the candidates generally agreed on a more humane approach that addresses the root causes of the exodus from Central America. All of them agreed there should be student debt relief.

As for who is the best bet to beat Johnson, Nelson touted his experience as both a legislator and a county executive, winning elections in “a tough part of the state that Democrats had had a really tough time figuring out,” and his background growing up in a working class neighborhood in Little Chute.

Larson labeled himself the “proven progressive” in the race with the backing of national progressive groups and reminded the panel of his experience fighting former Gov. Scott Walker’s attacks on public employees.

Alex Lasry (Screenshot | WisPolitics)
Alex Lasry (Screenshot | WisPolitics)

Lasry called himself the candidate of “real results” in bringing jobs and investment to the state and raising wages. He touted the $15 minimum wage his company pays workers at the Fiserv Forum and his union endorsements (although Bruce Murphy has reported in Urban Milwaukee that Lasry led a management team that dragged its feet on meeting union wage demands, caving to pressure to increase wages as a condition of hosting the Democratic National Convention.)

Godlewski pointed out that she is the candidate in the race who has already won a statewide election.

Battino called herself “the most unique candidate” as a working doctor who is directly in touch with the real world problems of her patients, and a “mama bear” who has raised six children of diverse backgrounds and knows what it’s like to advocate “from the deepest, most protective part of my soul for every human being.”

“We need a movement to win this election,” Olikara said, promoting his ability to appeal to voters of different political backgrounds, including “disaffected independents and Republicans” with a “positive agenda.”

One thing all the candidates agreed on was their enthusiasm for challenging Johnson, whom Larson described as “the poster child for all that’s wrong in Washington,” with his support for the Trump tax cuts, including provisions that specifically benefited Johnson himself, and, as Nelson put it, his reputation as “a Grade A conspiracy nut and an embarrassment to the state.”


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.