Mandela Barnes Emerges as the Senate Nominee After Every Primary Opponent Drops Out in Less Than a Week

Mandela Barnes vs. Ron Johnson

Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and US Sen. Ron Johnson

By Pat Kreitlow

July 29, 2022

The lieutenant governor becomes the Democrats’ presumptive challenger to Sen. Ron Johnson as Nelson, Lasry, and now Godlewski all drop out and seek a united front for November.

And then there was one. One Democratic challenger to unseat Republican Sen. Ron Johnson.

Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes went from frontrunner to presumptive nominee on Friday morning, capping off a week that began with a field of four major candidates and ended with Barnes’ three opponents out of the race and endorsing him.

State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski exited the race Friday. 

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Friday morning—prior to Godlewski’s departure—on the behind the scenes activities that led to the surprising announcements earlier in the week that Alex Lasry and Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson would drop out of the Democratic US Senate primary. 

A Marquette Law School Poll in June showed Lasry, a Milwaukee Bucks executive, had narrowed the gap with Barnes (25%-21%) after spending millions of his own dollars on advertising. Godlewski and Nelson were a distant third and fourth in the survey, at 9% and 7%, while a full 36% of Democratic respondents said they were still undecided.

But the Lasry campaign commissioned internal polls last week, according to the Journal Sentinel, and discovered Democratic voter sentiment had changed substantially and broken toward Barnes. Nelson’s campaign, meanwhile, had run out of cash. And Godlewski inexplicably ran no advertising for nine weeks in June and July. (The Journal Sentinel reporting said Godlewski had put about $4 million in personal money into her campaign while Lasry had spent about $15 million of his own funds.)

Neither Lasry nor Nelson wanted to change to a substantially negative message against Barnes as a longshot strategy, and each decided they would rather drop out and endorse Barnes ahead of the primary—even though about 140,000 absentee voters had already sent back their ballots.

Godlewski’s statement Friday morning noted that the primary campaign has stretched over the course of a year.

“We launched this campaign to defeat Ron Johnson and return this Senate seat to the people of Wisconsin,” Godlewski said. “I stepped up because, too often, Washington overlooks so many of the challenges working families face–from affordable childcare and senior care to paid family leave to prescription drug costs to reproductive freedom. I believed we needed more working moms at the US Senate table who would fight like hell to make these issues a priority–I still do. But it’s clear that if we want to finally send Ron Johnson packing, we must all get behind Mandela Barnes and fight together.”

Johnson is running for a third term, despite pledging to voters while running for a second term that he would term-limit himself.

For Barnes, an upbeat, middle class message resonated with Democratic voters, but the lack of sharp attacks in the primary means his first direct attacks will come from Republicans, who will spend tens of millions of dollars to persuade independent voters that the lieutenant governor is too progressive to replace Johnson.


  • Pat Kreitlow

    The Founding Editor of UpNorthNews, Pat was a familiar presence on radio and TV stations in western Wisconsin before serving in the state Legislature. After a brief stint living in the Caribbean, Pat and wife returned to Chippewa Falls to be closer to their growing group of grandchildren. He now serves as UNN's chief political correspondent and host of UpNorthNews Radio, airing weekday mornings 6 a.m.-8 a.m on the Civic Media radio network and the UpNorthNews Facebook page.



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