Election 2022 Wisconsin Senate (copy)

Democratic candidates vying for the chance to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson — from left, Mandela Barnes, Sarah Godlewski, Alex Lasry, Tom Nelson and Steven Olikara — participate in a debate Sunday in Milwaukee.  

When Robert M. La Follette went to the floor of the United States Senate on April 4, 1917, and announced his lonely opposition to U.S. entry into World War I, he bemoaned the lack of honest debate about militarism, imperialism and war profiteering. “The poor, sir, who are the ones called upon to rot in the trenches, have no organized power, have no press to voice their will upon this question of peace or war,” thundered the senator from Wisconsin. “But, oh, Mr. President, at some time they will be heard.”

In the current Senate, the voices of opposition to the constant overreach of the military-industrial complex are few and far between. Most Democratic senators join their Republican colleagues in supporting bloated Pentagon budgets that steer hundreds of billions of dollars toward defense contractors who are, in every sense, modern-age profiteers.

So we were pleased that — during the first televised debate between Wisconsin’s Democratic U.S. Senate candidates — Millennial Action Project founder Steven Olikara declared that he wants to serve as “a true anti-war senator” who is prepared to work to end “forever wars” and who understands the ways in which defense contractors use campaign contributions and lobbying to get their way on Capitol Hill.

We were equally impressed when Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson answered a question about how to reduce reliance on fossil fuels with a bold proposal to nationalize oil companies. While the other candidates offered credible responses to questions about addressing the climate crisis, Nelson — an ardent backer of the Green New Deal — brought a sense of urgency to the discussion with his bold proposal. He also made a powerful argument for how to get labor unions and environmentalists working together to create the jobs that will save the planet.

Though they are not frontrunners in the Senate race, we think it is important that Olikara and Nelson were included in the hour-long debate Sunday night at Marquette University. They brought fresh ideas and boldness to Sunday’s session, where they were given a chance to stir it up with contenders who have posted higher numbers in recent polls: Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes.

The polls generally put Barnes in the lead, and his position was undoubtedly strengthened by Monday’s endorsement by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Lasry, a wealthy political newcomer who is by far the highest-spending candidate in the race, polls in second place. Godlewski’s running third. But we continue to believe that this is a highly competitive primary contest in a state that has seen more than a few instances where candidates came from behind to win it all.

On Sunday night, Godlewski delivered the most polished presentation, while Lasry came across as the most cautious and predictable of the candidates.

While their performances varied, all five of the contenders confirmed that they are credible alternatives to incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson. We would gladly support any of them in November because beating Johnson is an urgent priority for Democrats, independents and responsible Republicans who recognize the senator as an embarrassment to the state and a threat to the country.

It was with this in mind that we listened closely to the appeals made by the contenders on the issues AND on their strategies for winning in November.

All the candidates tried to present themselves as likely winners in November. To our view, Nelson, Barnes and Godlewski stood out.

Nelson’s argument that he has run winning campaigns in a region of the state that often votes Republican was compelling. It’s a simply a fact that the Democratic nominee will need to attract votes in rural and suburban areas of the state that often back Republicans, and Nelson is right when he says: “The only thing that matters is who can beat Ron Johnson — and making Joe Manchin (the unreliable Democratic senator from West Virginia) irrelevant. I’m the only one up here from a red part of the state who’s won election and reelection six times — three as a legislator, and three as a county executive. I did it in Joe McCarthy’s hometown. If you want to win a purple state, you have to win in the red part of the state.”

Barnes delivered a similar message, with an added boost. He ran and won statewide as a Democratic primary contender for lieutenant governor in 2018 and as Gov. Tony Evers’ running mate that year. To loud applause from the crowd in the debate hall, Barnes closed off the night with a reminder: “I’m not telling you it’s going to be easy. But it wasn’t easy four years ago when we got rid of Scott Walker with the highest midterm turnout in the history of the state. What I am here to tell you is that, with your help, I promise you we will beat Ron Johnson.”

Ultimately, however, it was Godlewski who made the most energetic electability argument. The treasurer’s presentation throughout the evening — and especially when she focused on her long-term advocacy for abortion rights — was strong. But she was at her best when it came to making a case for why she can win in November.

Recalling her 2018 run for treasurer, Godlewski earned sustained applause when she announced, “I’m the only candidate on this stage that has won Ron Johnson’s county, which isn’t easy, in 2018. I’m also the only candidate that flipped and won nine Trump counties — that was more than the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. And at the end of the day, you have to be a 72-county candidate to win. I’m ready — and the woman that will defeat Ron Johnson this November."

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