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Capital City Sunday: Senate primary field grows, COVID-19 cases rising again

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MADISON (WKOW) -- The crowd of Democrats seeking the U.S. Senate seat held by Sen. Ron Johnson continued to grow this week. Two more candidates entered the crowded Democratic primary, bringing the field to nine candidates.

The new entries included perhaps the most recognizable statewide figure to get into the race yet; Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes announced his candidacy Tuesday. One day later, Milwaukee Alderwoman Chantia Lewis became the ninth candidate with the release of a video launching her campaign.

UW-Madison Political Science Professor Barry Burden said the growing field continues a recent trend in Wisconsin politics of swollen primary fields as candidates sense having a shot in the battleground state.

"Typically a statewide Senate seat or gubernatorial race might attract two or three or four candidates who would end up on the ballot in a party primary if they're not the incumbent party," Burden said. "Really, since about the 2016 election and certainly by the time of the 2018 mid-terms, we're seeing now races with eight, 10, sometimes more candidates getting into the mix."

Whether the winner of the primary will face Sen. Ron Johnson remains an open questions - and likely will remain so for some time. Johnson has yet to decide whether he'll honor his 2016 pledge to not seek a third term; the senator has said he is in no rush to decide and added the shifting political landscape of Democrats now controlling the White House and Congress could factor into his decision.

Burden said he did not see Johnson's decision having much influence on how Democratic candidates proceed, including whether more choose to enter the race.

"I think in this case, it probably matters less because Democrats really view this seat as being up for grabs and that's part of what motivates so many candidates to run now in Wisconsin primaries," Burden said. "That every general election looks like it can go to either party."

The state Republican party has focused its message so far on Barnes, State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, and Milwaukee Bucks Executive Alex Lasry.

“The current Democrat field consists of candidates who have lied about their resume, neglected to pay their taxes and jumped ahead of the elderly for the COVID vaccine," said Wisconsin GOP Communications Director Anna Kelly. "We look forward to watching them trip over themselves as they try to prove who is the most liberal.”

Critics have accused Godlewski of lying about her education. Her wedding announcement said she had a master's degree while Godlewski has said she never claimed herself to have finished the master's program at the University of Pennsylvania.

Barnes has faced criticism over falling behind on his property taxes and having unpaid parking tickets. Lasry was criticized earlier this year for getting the COVID-19 vaccine when it was only available to the most vulnerable citizens; Lasry said he was offered the vaccine on short notice through a connection to his wife and never used his influence to cut in line.

State Senator Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) is also vying for the Democratic nomination and said he believed the crowded field, which he joked Wednesday was now big enough to form a baseball team, was a symbol of Johnson's vulnerability.

Johnson has come under criticism for a recent fixation on elevating the extremely rare stories of people who suffered severe adverse reactions to the COVID-19 vaccine. Johnson has not decided whether he will seek a third term in office; he said he wouldn't back in 2016 but in recent weeks has said the calculus has changed since Democrats how control the White House and have a narrow majority in Congress.

"I think it shows there's a lot of enthusiasm to get rid of Ron Johnson, probably the most embarrassing politician we've had in Wisconsin since Joe McCarthy," Larson said.

Democrats in the crowded primary also include Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, who was the first to join the race, Wausau physician Dr. Gillian Battino, party activist Peter Peckarsky, and Franklin business owner Adam Murphy. Steven Olikara, who founded the Millenial Action Project, is expected to announce his candidacy as well; he was given time alongside other declared Senate candidates at Democratic state convention earlier this summer.

Meeting the Candidates

Nelson declared his candidacy in October of 2020, well before any other candidate entered the race. The Outagamie County Executive said he did so in order to get a leg up on more well-heeled candidates who are expected to continue outraising Nelson, either drawing from their own wealth or counting on connections.

"We needed time to build a statewide, grassroots organization," Nelson said.

Nelson said he believed his most appealing selling points were his early support to provide Medicare-style insurance to all Americans and his ability to win the county executive's seat in Outagamie County, which former President Donald Trump won by 10 percentage points in 2020.

"I'm the only candidate who comes from a red part of the state who has won election and re-election six times - three as a legislator where I served as a member of the state Assembly in Madison and as a county executive," Nelson said.

Nelson acknowledged he still has work to do in getting on the radar of casual voters in the state's Democratic strongholds of Milwaukee and Madison. It's a disadvantage as other candidates like Barnes, Lasry, and Larson are fairly well-known in the state's biggest city.

Nelson said he hoped to dramatically improve his name recognition with what he calls the "Full Nelson" tour, which aims to reach all 72 Wisconsin counties in a span of 72 days.

"If I can get through the primary, I'll be far and away the strongest general election candidate," Nelson said.

Earlier in the week, Barnes brushed aside questions about whether he supports the idea of taking money from police departments and redirecting them to community-based violence prevention initiatives.

Nelson said he did not support "defunding the police" and insisted law enforcement and alternative public safety measures could both be well-funded - something a number of municipal governments have talked about but struggle to actually accomplish.

"This should not be a zero-sum approach," Nelson said. "What we do in Outagamie County is we have a holistic approach where we have a criminal justice treatment services program we've had for 10 years, which works with the sheriff's department and district attorney."

Bucks Celebration COVID-19 Concerns

Following a week that saw Wisconsin's two largest mass public gatherings since the COVID-19 pandemic started, health officials and doctors said Friday they would expect to see new cases traced to the Milwaukee Bucks' NBA championship celebrations.

Milwaukee Police estimated about 100,000 people jammed into and around the downtown Deer District Tuesday night when the team won its first NBA Finals title in 50 years. Even more people came out Thursday for the Bucks' parade and championship rally.

Dr. Nasia Safdar, Medical Director of Infection Control at UW Health, said she also anticipated the celebrations would spread the virus, even if most of the crowd was vaccinated.

"It won't be that there will be zero cases because, of course, even though the vaccines are wonderful, they're not 100 percent and you might expect some breakthrough cases to occur," she said.

Safdar assed she was not too concerned about vaccinated members of the crowd becoming seriously ill should they contract the virus because the vast majority of people now needed hospitalization for COVID-19 have not gotten the vaccine.

"For people that are unvaccinated, it's entirely possible that just given the sheer volume of people that were there, they may have encountered someone who might've been incubated or had COVID all without knowing it," Safdar said. "So I think the risk is higher for those who are unvaccinated."

Along those lines, Safdar said she was downright confused to see the vaccination rate still hovering around 50 percent. Van Dijk said between the volume of vaccine doses available and providers who have available supply, the state could hit its targeted vaccination rate of 70 percent "within the next couple of days" if not for vaccine hesitancy.

"I could have perhaps understood it a little better earlier on in the pandemic when the vaccines first became available because I think people had questions about 'well it's just come out, how do I know it's safe?' and so on," Safdar said. "But not now millions and millions of people have become vaccinated and we're seeing such excellent outcomes."

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A. J. Bayatpour

Capitol Bureau Chief

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