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The Implications of the Wisconsin Senate Race

I have written a little about this before, in terms of the Democratic primary in August. On the Republican side in the general election, will be Ron Johnson, perhaps the worst senator of all, though it is a dreadful race to the bottom in that category.

Johnson is probably in the pay of Russia, he has supported them most of the time. He wants to ban all abortions. He is pro-NRA. He is terrible on every single issue. Also, he used taxpayer money to go on fundraising trips. One would think that the Wisconsin of thirty years ago would never have elected him in the first place, but there he is now.

I have never been to Wisconsin, so if anyone has a deeper understanding of its politics, please feel free to add it. I know that Scott Walker, who tried to cut every single program to help the poor, middle class, and unions, finally was replaced by a Democrat, after moving Wisconsin further Right than I had ever seen it. He filled the Wisconsin Supreme Court with amazingly Far to the Right judges who approve all the Republican gerrymandering, and throw out any Democratic attempts to fix it. And the state legislature, taken over like so many in the “shellackings” of 2010 and 2014, as a negative reaction to Obama, is also awful.

So it is not like it is the Wisconsin of William Proxmire. Johnson has a good chance to win, unless the Democrats nominate the strongest candidate. Who that might be, is of course a matter for dispute.

The leading candidate right out of the gate, by polls, was state Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes. Barnes, who is Black, is generally considered the most liberal of the candidates, though it is hard to compare, since none of them has actually been able to vote on bills. He is backed by The Working Families Party in Wisconsin, and by Elizabeth Warren, who flew out to campaign for him.

The second leading candidate is Alex Lasry, a multimillionaire who is an executive with the Milwaukee Bucks, currently on leave. Third is Sarah Godlewski, the State Treasurer.

Barnes had a pretty good lead, but in the latest poll, he is at 34%, Lasry is at 31%, and Godlewski has moved up from 7% to 18%, with her strong statements on protecting abortion rights helping her. Lasry and Godlewski are considered “center-left,” but of course this is mostly per position statements.

Now, here is my position. The Democrats would be better off nominating either Lasry or Godlewksi. My choice is Godlewski, who led Johnson 48-46% in a poll a couple of months ago, and just seems to me to be well positioned by background and viewpoints, to be elected in current-day Wisconsin. But it is going to be very hard for her to leap over the other two candidates. It is likely that Lasry and Godlewski would get substantially more votes between them than Barnes, but Wisconsin does not use ranked choice voting.

I was trying to find the percentage of Democratic voters in Wisconsin who are Black, but all I have found is that about 6-7% of the overall voters in the state are Black. I would extrapolate from that, to about 12% of the Democratic vote is from Black people. In 2016, the Black vote in Wisconsin was down 19% from 2012. In 2020, it was described as “stagnant” in terms of numbers. It seems that in the three key states which Hillary ostensibly lost in 2016: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, the two key factors were a decline in Black turnout from the Obama campaigns, and also the fact that the number of Sanders voters who did not vote for Hillary exceeded the victory margins; i.e, had they come out to vote for Hillary, she would have won all three states and the election, and we would be infinitely better off than we are now.

Now, I am not saying that Black voters always vote for Black candidates, but they usually do. And I am not saying that they should not; they have the right to vote for anyone they want, just like all of us do. But purely pragmatically, in races with fields of more than two, as in primaries, a bloc vote by a minority ethnic population can be decisive. That is just the mathematical reality of it.

So with Barnes, we have the only minority candidate, plus the only one supported by the Left. That is probably enough for him to win, but he could be the candidate who is most likely to lose to Johnson. And if that is true, where does that leave us nationally?

I am certain that “The Left” cost us the 2000 election by insisting on voting for Nader in Florida; and the 2016 election, by not voting for Hillary in sufficient numbers, and visibly attacking and mocking her throughout the campaign. And they never learn, they have this fixed vision that if only the Democrats would nominate the candidates furthest to the left, they would win, even though history shows over and over that this is not true. But they are impervious to it, it is not nearly as important for them to win elections and pass legislation, as it is to win some kind of purity victory in their minds. If the Black people in the South had not given Biden overwhelming victories in those states, we might have ended up with Sanders as the nominee, and Trump would have won easily.

A crucial thing to always remember is that senate races are not governor races. Yes, one is inclined to always want the candidate whose views come closest to one’s own. But if it is for governor, nuances of position matter more than for Senator, simply because each state has its own governor, one person, while there are 100 senators, and they vote as a group.

The differentiations in positions among Democratic senators is not that crucial, as long as they are fairly minor. As an example, it seems to me that Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, who was not liked by the more Progressive voters, largely because he had a moral stance against abortion, has voted with the Democrats virtually every time, including the recent attempt to codify Roe v. Wade as national law. He is not my favorite senator, but he comes through, and thus in that sense is as worthy as the rest. That is what ultimately matters.

We have to win the Senate race in Wisconsin, if we are to have any chance of actually controlling the Senate. We would need 52 senators, to overcome Manchin and Sinema. That is a gain of two seats.. The only real chances to pick them up are Pennsylvania, Wisconsin (our two best opportunities}, North Carolina, maybe a very outside chance at Florida. But we also risk losing Arizona, Georgia, even New Hampshire and Nevada. We must win all four of those, and then two of the first group, or the Republicans will block everything by filibuster, and we will never get any decent gun safety laws, or protect abortion, or pass key domestic spending bills, and protect the safety net, and somehow do something to protect the environment.

All of that is at stake. And actually, the nuances of the differences between one Democratic senator and another (excluding Manchin and Sinema), is not very important at all in a pragmatic sense. In virtually every key Senate vote in the last two years, 48 Democratic senators have voted the same way, the right way, as we see it.

This is not like some kind of psychological test where the scores can differ on various components. There are only a certain amount of Senate votes, and you either vote one way or the other way. So at the margins, it does not matter at all what the difference in opinions among the Democratic senators are. We might have our favorites, and prefer the oratory of one to another, but all we really should care about is how they vote when the key bills come up.

And in that regard, it is far more important to win the senate race in Wisconsin, than to get someone who might have a 98% Progressive rating, over one who has 94%. Their votes will probably be exactly the same. So we need to get them elected, because losing with the most appealing candidate ever, is infinitely worse than winning with a decent one.

It is all about numbers, and we need the numbers, not nearly as much the purity of positions, even though of course we prefer candidates who mirror our views. The Senate is purely a numbers game; 100 votes, you need 51 of them, or in the worst case, 50 plus the Vice President. Losing every vote 49-51 with the greatest array of liberal senators ever, is disaster for any person who actually focuses on outcomes, and not just aesthetics.

Now, of course, the issue still is, who will win? If you actually think that any of the candidates of your party will win, if you are in a very liberal state, by all means vote for the one whose views and personality you most favor. But if you are in a purplish state, and there are several candidates in your primary, my strong view is that you should vote for the one who is mostly likely to win the seat for the Democrats. This is true for Senate races and House races.

We are at a crisis point. We simply cannot afford the Republicans to take over anything. If they get the House, they will block all spending bills, threaten to and maybe actually shut down the government, and refuse to raise the debt ceiling, all while conducting a series of hearings designed to damage their political enemies. If they win the Senate, they will block all bills from even getting a vote, and will block all judicial nominees, just like that, because that is what they do. And if a Supreme Court opening comes up, they will block the nominee even from getting a hearing.

That is what is at stake. People very understandably are outraged and depressed and saddened by the tragedy in Uvalde, and we all want to do something. And there are things one can do, but the most significant of those has to be winning the Congress, because if we don’t do that, we are never going to get any meaningful gun legislation, and we may actually see a complete national ban on abortion.

That is so great a burden to put on any one person who votes, because she or he only gets that one vote in one district and in one state. But we have to keep our eye on what is most important, and that is winning the elections.

So I just hope that enough people will vote with that in mind, and vote for people in primaries who will actually win the national election. If I lived in Wisconsin, I would support Godelewki, but if it got near election time, and Lasry was substantially ahead of her, I would vote for him. I think that either of them is more likely to beat Ron Johnson than is Barnes.

And that is all that matters to me right now, extended to every other single race we are going to have to win in five months. We ignore that at our peril. I still think that Gwen Graham would have beaten Ron DeSantis for governor in Florida in 2018, but the more liberal Andrew Gillum got the primary win, and then lost to DeSantis. What a difference it would have made, had the Democrats won that race, by choosing the more winnable candidate.

As I wrote this essay, I thought of my parents, who were proud FDR and Stevenson liberal Democrats, but who always considered, as we discussed the elections, the matter of which Democratic candidate was more likely to win in a difficult general election race, and then would usually vote for him or her in the primary, unless one was appalling, or personally objectionable. They were idealistic politically, and in other ways, but they knew how important it was to not let the Republicans win any important race.