Saying goodbye to Sarah Godlewski

Wisconsin’s only woman candidate for the U.S. Senate will be missed

July 30, 2022 7:00 am
Sarah GodlewskI

Flanked by a group of medical doctors, Sarah Godlewski speaks at a press conference May 13, 2022, on preserving abortion rights. Godlewski was campaigning for the Democratic nomination to run for Senate against Republican Sen. Ron Johnson. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

It was a bittersweet moment on Friday when State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski ended her U.S. Senate campaign. It was a week of rapid realignment, with Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson dropping out and backing  Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes on Monday and Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry following suit on Wednesday. With Democrats consolidating behind Barnes, the frontrunner is now all but certain to win the primary to challenge incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Johnson in the fall. 

Barnes and Godlewski were all smiles as they stood together at the Fitchburg child care center the departing candidate chose a backdrop for her announcement that she was suspending her campaign.

Holding her 2 ½-year-old son Hartley (aka “my little cheese curd,”) Godlewski talked about what her campaign meant “as a mom … as a Western Wisconsinite … and as a woman” who made women’s concerns the centerpiece of her run for the U.S. Senate.

Godlewski captured national media attention after Roe v. Wade was overturned because of her campaign’s focus on defending reproductive rights. For Wisconsin and for the entire country, her candidacy was a lightning rod for the outrage of women who overnight became second-class citizens after losing the federally recognized right to control their own bodies.

Addressing the women and girls who have called and texted her to say that they are “worried about their rights, as they are seeing Ron Johnson say that they cannot make their own health care decisions,” Godlewski told the crowd at the Fitchburg child care center, her voice breaking a little, “I will never back down from that fight. But I know the first step to get us there is electing Mandela Barnes, who actually cares about this issue.”

We will never know how a Godlewski versus Johnson Senate race would have turned out. For women who wanted to register their rejection of the Republicans’ retrograde position on reproductive rights through their votes in the next election, that’s a loss. 

I watched Godlewski work the crowd at a fundraiser with a group of women who live in the Madison suburb of Maple Bluff, in the backyard of a beautiful house on the lake a few blocks from the governor’s mansion. I saw first hand how the same demographic group — white suburban women — that has been abandoning Ron Johnson and the party of Donald Trump in droves, eroding GOP margins of victory in Wisconsin, embraced Godlewski, warming to her energetic, friendly personality and her message. The hosts and participants at the fundraiser were galvanized to defend women’s reproductive rights, but many also commented that they liked the fact that Godlewski used to work at the Pentagon.

Godlewski’s cross-over appeal to conservatives who don’t like the direction of the Republican party made her an interesting candidate in a year when the GOP is doubling down on immigrant bashing, election denial and anti-abortion extremism in every race.

It would have been interesting to see how Johnson fared against a candidate who clearly threatened to peel away some of his core voters — not just suburban moms, but also small town and rural voters with whom Godlewski connected as a child of Eau Claire and a serious agricultural policy wonk.

In head-to-head polls, Godlewski did as well as Barnes against Johnson.

Most of all, it would have been nice to see RoJo have to answer for some of his incredibly bone-headed statements on women to the sharp, unintimidated and delightfully relatable Godlewski, including, as she put it in her speech suspending her campaign, “telling half our population that they should just move if they want to get their rights back.”

Only Godlewski knows why her campaign went dark in June and July, taking its ads off the air for eight weeks before making a last-minute seven-figure ad buy this month, as Dan Bice reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “I’ve never seen a candidate evaporate like she did,” a source close to the Lasry campaign told Bice of Godlewski’s decision to go off the air.

During that two-month period, some of Godlewski’s supporters began migrating  to Barnes, according to Lasry’s internal polling.

That’s no big surprise. The two youthful, energetic and progressive members of Gov. Tony Evers’ administration, Godlewski and Barnes, have a lot in common.

Although her voice cracked a bit while she was throwing her support to Barnes, Godlewski meant it when she said the issues she cares about, especially women’s rights, are genuinely important to Barnes, too.

But that’s not the same as seeing those issues championed by the only woman in the race.

Part of Godlewski’s downfall may have been that she was basically running a general election campaign during a primary race. Nelson, the only primary candidate in a remarkably cordial field who consistently went negative on his opponents, beat up on Godlewski (and Lasry) for being a wealthy self-financer, as well as for her failure to cast a vote in the 2016 presidential election.

Had she stayed on the air and continued to run, pouring money and energy into convincing voters all over the state that she was the best candidate to beat Johnson, there’s a very decent chance that the upshot would be that Wisconsin would have been represented by two very progressive, pro-choice female senators. 

That’s not to take anything away from Barnes, a magnetic person who would be Wisconsin’s first Black senator, and whose strong message about representing working families and bringing the state together is a breath of fresh air after Johnson’s divisiveness, conspiracy theories and policies that coddle the very rich and undermine the interests of most voters in Wisconsin.

Godlewksi offered to help the Barnes campaign in any way she can — and made a few specific suggestions, including traveling to rural areas of the state and talking to women’s groups.

Barnes should take her up on that.


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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 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. Her book "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel Award from The New Press.