Four of the leading candidates in the Democratic primary to determine who will challenge Sen. Ron Johnson in November. L-R, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski (Graphic by Jonathon Sadowski)
Four of the leading candidates in the Democratic primary to determine who will challenge Sen. Ron Johnson in November. L-R, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski (Graphic by Jonathon Sadowski)

Lieutenant Governor tops two new polls, but about half of Democratic voters say they don’t have a favorite choice to run for Senate.

Until recently, Democratic candidates seeking US Sen. Ron Johnson’s seat have focused their attacks on the incumbent Republican, mostly for his controversial comments on everything from opposing COVID-19 regulations, to his continued false assertions about 2020 election fraud, to his refusal to help bring 1,000 jobs to his hometown of Oshkosh. 

However, in the past two weeks Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson has criticized the perceived Democratic frontrunner, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, saying Barnes has been unclear on some of his stances on issues and has flip-flopped his views on others. Nelson and Barnes are among 12 Democrats who will face off in an Aug. 9 primary; the winner will face Johnson in the Nov. 8 general election. 

During a Feb. 25 Democratic candidate forum by the progressive group Our Wisconsin Revolution, Nelson charged Barnes with changing his stances on various issues and said the lieutenant governor must be accountable for those stances. 

“I support Medicare for All. I do not support just a pathway for Medicare for All,” Nelson said during the forum when asked about his position on health care. “I don’t bury it in one sentence on Page 10 of a supposed economic plan.”

Nelson’s comment was a reference to a statement Barnes made as part of his plan to assist small businesses in Wisconsin released last week. In that plan, Barnes states he supports “building a path to Medicare for all” as part of that plan.

Barnes said he does support Medicare for All, a policy that has wide support among Democrats and is opposed by Republicans. 

“I do support Medicare for All because in the richest country in the world, nobody should go bankrupt because of their medical bills,” Barnes responded. “We need America on the path of universal health care with lower costs and high-quality coverage,” and Medicare for All is the fastest way to accomplish that goal.

Nelson also went after Barnes for what Nelson characterized as the lieutenant governor “flip-flopping” on issues and refusing to be up front about that with media. During an appearance last week on the liberal online news show The Young Turks and in a story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Nelson said Barnes previously supported such stances as Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and defunding police but now doesn’t speak to those issues.

Barnes again defended his past stances, saying he continues to support the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. He said he has backed off of defunding the police, but said that is not a new position of his. 

Those comments stood out in the forum during which the other candidates in attendance–Peter Pechkarsky, Darrell Williams, Steven Olikara, Jeff Rumbaugh, and Adam Murphy–discussed their own plans and didn’t criticize each other. The discussion included such topics as health care, the environment, and immigation policy.

Barnes, Nelson, Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry and state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski have dominated the race and are considered frontrunners. According to a Marquette Law School survey of 802 Wisconsin voters released Wednesday, 48% of Democrats said they have not picked a candidate for Johnson’s seat. Twenty-three percent of respondents support Barnes, 13% back Lasry, 5% support Nelson, 3% back Godlewski, and 2% support other candidates. Lasry released an internal poll that also showed Barnes as the leader but Lasry closing the gap after a major TV ad campaign.

Barnes raised $1.2 million in the fourth quarter of last year, nearly $1 million more than Nelson. Godlewski and Lasry, who have each loaned their campaigns more than $1 million, did not participate in the forum.

Gillian Battino, a radiologist in Wausau, was a candidate in the Democratic primary before dropping out of the race to instead run for state treasurer. Other Democratic candidates running for that position are former state Treasurer Dawn Marie Sass, West Allis City Council member Angelito Tenorio, and Fitchburg Mayor Aaron Richardson. Republican primary candidates include Jeanette Deschene of Manitowoc and Orlando Owens, an aide to Johnson.