Election 2022 Wisconsin-Senate (copy)

Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, left, listens as Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes speaks during a press conference at Deer District Plaza in Milwaukee last Wednesday. With less than two weeks before the primary, Lasry announced on Wednesday he was dropping out of the Democratic U.S. Senate race and endorsing frontrunner Barnes. 

A former legislative colleague of mine had a colorful way of reinterpreting popular axioms. A case in point: When a once contentious issue was about to be resolved, he would proclaim, “The handwriting is getting closer to the wall.” That well describes the Democratic Senate primary.

It’s easy to decide whom to vote for in the November general election for U.S. Senate. Simply put, whoever runs against Sen. Ron Johnson. However, until recently, it has been much tougher for me to decide whom to vote for in the Democratic primary on Tuesday, Aug. 9.

It now seems extremely likely that Mandela Barnes will be the Democratic nominee, and he has my vote. It’s time to get behind Barnes for the overriding purpose of beating Johnson, who will have untold millions of dollars pouring into Wisconsin from out-of-state extremists and special interests to run a brutal, negative campaign. The sooner we unite behind Barnes, who is almost certain to be our candidate, the better our chances of sending Johnson packing.

When Alex Lasry unexpectedly dropped out the race last week after spending over $12 million, he declared, "Mandela won this race." I’m willing to bet that Lasry didn’t abandon the race just two weeks before the primary on a whim, especially considering all the money, time and energy he has spent campaigning. According to press accounts, several private polls indicated that Barnes is headed for an overwhelming primary victory.

Barnes is the charismatic lieutenant governor who has been a powerful advocate for the middle class. His concern for working families is in his bones. His mother was a school teacher and his father a third-shift worker at an auto plant. His advocacy for average folks comes off as authentic and deep-rooted because that’s how he was raised. He will be a strong candidate.

The other Democratic candidates have acquitted themselves well and I hope that they will have a strong future in state politics. Tom Nelson, Steve Olikara, Alex Lasry and Sarah Godlewski provide Democrats with a deep bench for future elections.

There has been a thoughtful discussion throughout the primary campaign about which of the Democratic candidates would be strongest against Johnson. That this was the dominant conversation rather than the candidates’ positions on specific issues shows how focused Democrats are on defeating Johnson. Ironically, the Democratic candidate is probably the third-most important factor in the outcome of the election. In large measure this election, like most these days, has been nationalized. Most of the votes will be based on partisan allegiances and national voting trends. Another deciding factor will be opinions about Johnson. Elections are usually a referendum on the incumbent, and for a figure as polarizing as Johnson this will be especially true.

Yet the Democratic candidate will still matter greatly. Wisconsin is the epitome of a purple state. Statewide elections are usually won by a percent or two (Sen. Tammy Baldwin is the exception). The ability of a candidate to influence undecided voters and to increase turnout can be the difference between defeat and victory.

Turnout will be key. Historically, Democrats have trailed Republicans in turnout in non-presidential elections like the one this November. Democratic enthusiasm for voting is often hurt by intraparty disputes or disappointed expectations. We can’t afford that if we want to defeat Johnson.

As my former colleague would say, the writing is indeed close to the wall. Mandela Barnes will almost certainly be the winner of the primary election. Let’s launch him on the road to defeating Johnson by sending him off with a resounding victory on Aug. 9.

Spencer Black served for 26 years in the state Legislature. He was chair of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee and the Assembly Democratic leader. Since leaving the Legislature, Black has been vice president for conservation for the national Sierra Club and adjunct professor of planning at UW-Madison.

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