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Who Can Beat Ron Johnson In November-- And Who Can't?

In an OpEd for Isthmus this morning, former two-term Madison mayor Dave Cieslewicz wrote that Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson is not just the best candidate running for the Wisconsin Senate seat held by fascist Ron Johnson, but is also the most likely candidate to win in a general election. The tragedy is that a candidate who can't possibly win the general, Mandela Barnes, is running significantly ahead in primary polling.

"When I vote in the Democratic primary in August," wrote Cieslewicz, "I’ll have only one question: Who can beat Sen. Ron Johnson? I really don’t care much about anything else. All of the four leading candidates have positions on issues that are pretty much uniformly liberal, though some may have been more outspoken on a few things to their detriment. I’ll get to that. It’s not so much that I’ll be voting for someone, as against Johnson. Johnson is, to put it as gently as I know how, a stark raving idiot. He has spewed all kinds of baloney and conspiracy theories about COVID, elections, climate change, you name it. And he’s also just a really unpleasant guy. He has no sense of humor, much less a self-deprecating bone in his body. When he announced that he would break his promise not to seek a third term he sniffed that he was making that sacrifice for us, because the nation and Wisconsin really needed him. No, trust me Ron, we most definitely do not need you."

Blue America has endorsed Nelson, not primarily because he's the most likely to beat the unpopular Johnson-- although that is a factor-- but because we think he would make the best senator. Please consider contributing to his campaign here. This afternoon he reiterated to me that "Democrats have got to get this one right. This race is for all the marbles. We cannot keep the Senate without Wisconsin. I am the only candidate from a red part of the state who has won election and re-election six times, three as a legislator, three as a county executive. More, I am a proven progressive: medicare for all, green new deal, union rights, anti-trust, tax the rich. I run on these issues because they are the right issues and because they are winning issues."

[A]s I think about who I might vote for come August, here are my rankings based solely on who I think at this moment has the best chance of beating RoJo.
In first place is Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson. I like Nelson for one simple reason: he has demonstrated that he can win in red parts of the state. That’s key because any Dem will rack up the votes in Dane and Milwaukee counties. But the race could easily come down to 20,000 or 30,000 votes, just like it did for Evers in 2018 and Biden in 2020. The ability to pick up some votes in reddish areas might make all the difference. Nelson won races for state Assembly and then for county exec in the Fox River Valley, normally a Republican stronghold. He is an unabashed liberal populist and yet he seems to find a way to connect to voters who would certainly not describe themselves that way. And he is, far and away, the most qualified candidate in the race. He’s got real government experience at both the legislative and executive levels.

He also has high regard for the polling front-runner, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes. "Barnes," he wrote, "is liberal and charismatic and he has the support of progressive luminaries like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. He can also claim to have won statewide, though that was on a ticket with Tony Evers. Still, he can argue that he’ll turn out the Black vote in Milwaukee. But there’s a lot to worry about with Barnes. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel political reporter Dan Bice has reported what a lot of insiders already knew: Barnes has flirted with some very unpopular leftist ideas. He now claims to have never supported defunding the police or abolishing ICE, but that will be a hard sell come November. Barnes posted a photo on social media holding up an Abolish ICE T-shirt, which he is on record as having requested. To make matters worse, Barnes is ducking the press. When the other major candidates talked to the Wall Street Journal, he would only issue a written statement. He did the same with Bice. He won’t be able to duck the national and state press, much less Johnson, in the fall. You can’t get away with running a campaign on paper."

It may not be fair but Barnes is an unelectable candidate. The rest of the state just doesn't like Milwaukee, doesn't like flip-floppers, doesn't like political cowards and doesn't like people who pretend to be extremists one day and then pretend to be moderates the next day. I agree with that short about abolishing ICE. Barnes now claims, and not very persuasively that he doesn't, unless you're already persuaded that he doesn't really believe in anything... other than advancing his own career.

His least favorite of the front-runner is hereditary billionaire Alex Lasry. "As a rule," he wrote, "I try to have some respect for anybody who puts their name on a ballot. I’ve been there and it opens one up to all manner of abuse. But in Lasry's case, I’ll make an exception. Let me be the one to heap on the abuse. Lasry may be a perfectly good guy, but his candidacy is flat out offensive and without, as far as I can tell, a theory of how he might win. This is a rich kid who has accomplished nothing in life without the help of his billionaire parents. And, by the way, his father made his money as a Wall Street hedge fund operator-- not exactly a salt of the earth type. Alex Lasry didn’t even live in Wisconsin until 2014 and yet, somehow, he thinks he’s qualified to represent our state in the United States Senate. His sole 'qualification' is his dad’s money. I’ll vote for the guy in November if I have to, but please Democratic voters, don’t make me have to. He will lose to Johnson. Period. No contest."

This race has got to be about how execrable Ron Johnson is, not about a flawed Democratic opponent. I agree with Cieslewicz-- Nelson is the best candidate not just because he's far and away, the most qualified," but also because he's got the best shot to flip Wisconsin blue and retire Johnson. And not just Cieslewicz. Back in November Urban Milwaukee noted that "There are lots of similarities behind Feingold’s improbable and inspiring campaign three decades ago and what Nelson’s got going now. For one thing, both are underdogs. Nobody gave Feingold a chance in ’92 because for most of the campaign he was running a distant third behind better known and much better financed candidates in Congressman Jim Moody and businessman Joe Checota. Nelson and Feingold also have similar resumes. Both have a folksy style that masks impressive resumes. Feingold was a Rhodes Scholar while Nelson has a graduate degree from Princeton. Both are from neither Madison nor Milwaukee-- an advantage in a general election. Feingold touted his Janesville roots and he was a state senator from Middleton. If voters didn’t realize that Middleton was a Madison suburb, Feingold made no effort to get the word out. Nelson lives in Appleton... Both staked out progressive, somewhat populist, positions. Nelson has been upfront about his support for Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and a $15 minimum wage. He says that progressives should stick by their $3.5 trillion social safety net and climate spending plan. I don’t agree with all those positions, but they’re overwhelmingly popular with Democratic primary voters."


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