Democrats hailed the bombshell news, saying it would give Barnes a leg up on Johnson in one of the nation’s most crucial Senate races and help his fundraising operation. Johnson has $3.6 million in the bank according to the latest campaign finance reports, compared to $1.5 million for Barnes.
Wisconsin is the last big question mark left to Senate Democrats in terms of defining their slate of candidates, and Barnes’ likely victory means the party has its slate nearly ready for the general election.
“I don’t think that helps,” said Joe Zepecki, a Democratic strategist based in Wisconsin. “Any time there’s a contested primary, you think it’s going to take a few days to bring everyone together. Due to our primary being late, the sooner you can do this, the better. The other thing that I think is really important is that it sends a signal to donors that they can now also merge.
Lasry is the second Democratic candidate to drop out of the race this week. Outagamie County manager Tom Nelson suspended his offer two days ago and threw his weight behind Barnes. The only top Democrat remaining in the race, state treasurer Sarah Godlewski, voted in single digits.
“We’ve said from day one that the most important thing we can do for Wisconsin is get rid of Ron Johnson,” Lasry said in his first news interview. “I firmly believe that if there was no path to victory, the best thing to do is to make sure we can rally around a candidate as soon as possible so that we can spend every second that we have to make sure that we are working towards that goal.”
Wisconsin is one of the top battlegrounds for the Senate this fall, and Democrats view it as one of their best pickup opportunities in the country. A recent poll found Johnson trailing most of his Democratic opponents, including Barnes. But Republicans argue Johnson was previously underestimated and won.
Bill McCoshen, a Wisconsin-based Republican consultant, said Lasry’s departure benefits Barnes in the short term because “it saves Barnes the million and a half he was going to spend over the next two weeks on general “. But in the long run, he says, it makes no difference.
“Johnson was okay with any of the matchups, and over the last six months it was pretty obvious it would probably be Barnes. So I think he’s ready for that,” he said. “It will be a nationalized race, where voters will have to make a choice: Do they like the direction the country is heading? And if they do, Barnes is committed to continuing on that path.”
Johnson’s campaign quickly moved to tie Barnes to policies unpopular with Republicans and many swing voters.
“It’s clear that Democrats are uniform in their support for more of the same Biden policies that got us into this mess in the first place: spending sprees, the Green New Deal, defunding the police, and abolishing ICE,” said Johnson’s campaign adviser Ben Voelkel. “This vision of the future will be a tough sell for so many Wisconsin families who are already suffering from record inflation, high gas prices, out-of-control crime and an insecure border.”
Unlike in years past, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee did not select its candidates in swing-state races this year. In other contests, this neutral approach has sometimes led to bitter primaries. For example, in the Pennsylvania Democratic Senate race, a super PAC opposed to Lt. Governor John Fetterman called him a “silver spoon socialist.” Fetterman won the nomination.
DSCC chairman Gary Peters sought to project neutrality in the Wisconsin Senate contest even after news broke that Lasry was going to drop out.
“We still have Sarah Godlewski who is in the running and she has been working hard. But clearly you have a smaller field now, so that will change some of the dynamic going forward,” he told POLITICO. “Our position is that we are not dealing with the primary at this time.”
Godlewski’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Although the DSCC stayed out of the primary, Lasry said he spoke with Sen a few times. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and “got his opinion” on his decision to step aside.
“After speaking with Tammy and seeing the data, it was clear that Mandela was going to be the candidate,” he said. “Everyone has come to the conclusion that if there is no way forward, the best thing to do is to make sure we are able to unite the party.”
Lasry said he informed Barnes of his decision on Tuesday. Barnes said in a statement that he had “always been proud to call Alex a friend.”
“I’m so grateful to Alex for all the work he’s done to move Wisconsin forward, and I’m proud to have his endorsement,” he said. “I deeply admire Alex’s commitment to creating good union jobs and raising wages throughout his career and throughout this campaign, and the work he has done to bring pride and opportunity in Milwaukee, a city we both love.”
Sen. Cory Booker (DN.J.), who endorsed Barnes, said the lieutenant governor still takes the Senate primary seriously.
“He has a lot of guts and determination to show Democratic primary voters that he can be a great general election candidate,” Booker said.
Lasry, who received early support from the unions, presented himself as a candidate capable of getting things done. He received applause from Democrats for a TV ad in which he said bluntly, “Here’s an idea: If we make stuff here in America, supply chain issues won’t be a thing anymore.”
Lasry and Barnes have been nearly neck and neck in public and private polls in recent months. A survey conducted by Marquette University Law School in June found that Barnes won 25% of the vote, while Lasry took 21%. The margin of error for this survey was plus or minus 6.2%.
But Barnes has always had pole position, and his campaign this week released an internal survey that indicated he was widening his lead. That showed him a 14 percentage point lead over Lasry. Godlewski trailed Barnes by 27 points.
Throughout the primary, Barnes has highlighted his middle-class roots in contrast to his well-heeled opponents from both parties. A Barnes TV ad shot “the other millionaire Senate candidates.”
Barnes has sought to appeal to a broad spectrum of the electorate, winning nods from establishment Democrats such as Majority Whip Jim Clyburn as well as progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Still, a victory for Barnes in the Democratic primary would be a victory for the progressive movement. Barnes expressed support for Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and the left-wing Working Families Party are among its key allies. Lasry, on the other hand, ran a more centre-left campaign.
Barnes would be Wisconsin’s first black senator if elected. At 35, he would also be one of the youngest senators currently in the hemicycle.
Barnes said he and Lasry will soon take to the track together to “unite Wisconsinans from all corners of the state to defeat Ron Johnson.”
In the interview, Lasry said Barnes was a “friend” and that Barnes “always put the state…and its constituents…above party and politics.”
When asked if he would be involved in politics in the future, Lasry said: “I know we always like to talk about the next race, but I’m very focused on this one. And whether it’s running for something or making sure we get good people and good Democrats elected, I’ll always be involved in that. I’ve always been involved in that.