Democratic Senate candidates
Clockwise from top left: State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, state Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee), Millennial Action Project founder Steven Olikara, Wausau radiologist Dr. Gillian Battino, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, and Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry. Godlewski, Larson, Battino, Nelson, and Lasry have launched US Senate campaigns to challenge Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, and Olikara has formed an exploratory committee. (Graphic by Morgaine Ford-Workman)

Six Democrats try to break through the crowded US Senate candidate field to face Ron Johnson in 2022.

The five official and one likely Democratic US Senate candidates on Tuesday answered questions on issues like infrastructure, election reform, and health care during a virtual forum hosted by WisPolitics.com.

The candidates are vying for Republican Sen. Ron Johnson’s seat in next year’s midterm elections. Johnson has not yet announced if he is running for a third term. 

Among the candidates are Wausau radiologist Dr. Gillian Battino, state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, state Sen. Chris Larson, Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, and Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson. Steven Olikara, founder of the nonprofit Millennial Action Project, has formed an exploratory committee and was also present to answer questions. 

The candidates agreed on a number of issues: All six of them favor getting rid of the filibuster reforming elections, and they all emphasized the importance of health care as a human right. 

However, the candidates varied on issues such as President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill and eliminating student debt. 

Godlewski, Larson, Lasry, Olikara, and Battino supported the bipartisan bill. Nelson, however, said his perspective was similar to that of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) in pushing for more sweeping changes through a budget reconciliation bill, which could be passed without Republican support. Nelson said the bill should be used to address infrastructure needs while also acknowledging the climate crisis and creating jobs in the process. 

Larson, Lasry, and Battino emphasized that the passage of the bipartisan bill is important to meeting Wisconsin’s infrastructure needs, but said it is just the first step in the right direction. 

“This deal, as President Biden has said, is a BFD [big f–king deal]. This is an important thing for us to make sure that we’re getting passed, and 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,” Lasry said. 

RELATED: Breaking Down Democrats’ Crowded 2022 Senate Field in Wisconsin

Olikara said  passing this legislation would be an example of overcoming the nation’s current trend of staunch partisanship and creating a rational, functional government process. 

Godlewski and Olikara said election reform is one of the top issues in their campaign. 

“I saw firsthand in my 2018 election how broken the system is,” Godlewski said. “We’ve got to do everything to make sure every single Wisconsinite has a voice.” 

Nelson said that Wisconsin would benefit greatly from election reform, as the state has historically been known for its gerrymandered districts. 

The affordability and accessibility of health care is where candidates varied the most in their ideas to address the issue. 

While Lasry and Godlewski clearly stated their support for a public option in addition to the current Affordable Care Act, Battino made clear she opposes this idea. 

“The public option is not a great option to me. When we start drawing those kinds of lines, then somebody gets left out,” she said. 

Nelson, Larson, and Battino explicitly said they support Medicare For All. 

“It’s ridiculous in a country where we are spending more on health care than every other country, but it’s still the number one cause of individual bankruptcy,” Larson said. 

Immigration policy brought out some common themes among the candidates. Many of them blamed former President Donald Trump for the crisis at the southern border, and their solutions centered around addressing the root causes of migration. Ideas ranged from improving foreign policy in Central America to creating clear-cut pathways to citizenship. 

“This is emblematic of a terribly failed foreign policy, something that has been completely neglected in the last four years with Donald Trump, who has made this worse, and also someone like Ron Johnson, who has done little to nothing to actually fix this but of course has the temerity to criticize this administration again and again,” Nelson said. “This country needs to focus like a laser on our policies in Central America, because that is the source of the problem.” 

Battino said she wants to protect the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that offers protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children. Godlewski and Lasry advocated for modernizing the process of crossing the border and immigration. Larson suggested investing more in diplomacy to Central America through the State Department and getting these funds from the “bloated Pentagon budget.” 

Similar to immigration policy, some of the candidates stressed that eliminating student debt is something to be combatted systemically rather than through outright forgiveness.

Battino and Nelson called for total cancellation of student debt. Larson said he would consider forgiving a certain amount. Godlewski said forgiveness could be an option, but said systemic solutions are better, and Olikara expressed his concern for complete loan forgiveness.

“Just a blanket check to every dollar of student debt is unwise right now. That’s not addressing the root problem,” Olikara said. 

Lasry suggested lowering interest rates of student loans and offering free community college and trade schools. 

A common pattern among the candidates was that they were quick to call out Johnson’s actions in Congress. However, first they have to compete against each other in the primary before one of them will face Johnson in the Nov. 8, 2022 election, assuming he runs for a third term. 

Nelson and Godlewski said their political experience and electoral success sets them apart, with Nelson serving as a legislator and county executive, and Godlewski winning a statewide election. Larson called himself the only proven progressive in the race with a clear and transparent agenda. 

Lasry and Battino said that their lack of political experience is a strength. Lasry said he still has proven himself as someone who gets things done within his career. Battino said her unique role as a doctor and mom of six children makes her more relatable to Wisconsinites. Olikara said he will provide empowering and inclusive politics to the “politically homeless.”