Senate debate: Wisconsin's Democratic candidates square off

Wisconsin's five Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate shared the debate stage Sunday night, July 17 inside Marquette University's Varsity Theatre.

The candidates differ on how they'd represent Wisconsin, but they were clear in a goal to keep Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson from serving a third term.

According to political experts, it is one of the nation's most contested U.S. Senate races.

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On the topic of abortion, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes said he is willing to consider protection for abortions on federal lands in states that ban the procedure.

"We need to expand the majority, end the filibuster and codify the right to chose into law," said Barnes. "I think, in the meantime, we have to explore every possible option to make sure that women get the reproductive health care that they need and deserve."

Mandela Barnes, Sarah Godlewski, Alex Lasry, Tom Nelson, Steven Olikara (Courtesy: TMJ4 News)

When asked about gun reform, State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski explained her push for "common sense" legislation, which she said should include a ban on assault-style weapons.

"We need to make sure that we're expanding background checks and closing loopholes," said Godlewski. "You know, the other big thing is we've gotta have national red flag laws, because we don't want domestic abusers to be getting ahold of guns."

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Alex Lasry touted his experience with the Milwaukee Bucks when asked how to address inflation for Wisconsin families.

"The best thing we can do is make sure that we're raising wages and building more things here in America, and that's what our plan has called for, and that's what I have a track record of delivering on," Lasry said.

Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson stressed the need for what he calls a new "Green Deal" to prioritize environmental protections.

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin)

"We have no choice," Nelson said. "I believe in the social contract, the social contract that says we need to fix these problems before the next generation, and we have really screwed up on this one."

Steven Olikara, founder of the Millennial Action Project, said he is the candidate to change the political system in Washington.

"The political industrial complex is much more interested in your dollar than it's interested in your human right, and that's why I'm running to change the system here," he said.

Voters will cast primary ballots on Aug. 9. Polls show Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry are leading the crowded field. 

In a statement following the debate, Republican National Committee Spokesperson Rachel Reisner said:

"Tonight, Wisconsin Democrats not only embraced Joe Biden’s radical agenda that led to rampant inflation, a looming recession, and war on American energy, but ensured that Ron Johnson would serve another term in the senate."

More from the candidates

Mandela Barnes

Barnes pointed to his win as Gov. Tony Evers’ running mate in 2018 over then-Gov. Scott Walker as evidence that he knows how to beat a Republican statewide. Last week, he launched a television ad featuring his mother talking about having to end a pregnancy.

Sarah Godlewski

The only woman in the race, she took aim at her male opponents on abortion, asking why they had not made it more of a priority before the U.S. Supreme Court last month overturned the Roe v. Wade decision, which put an 1849 state law banning abortion in Wisconsin back into effect. She worked for Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign in Wisconsin in 2016 – but records show she did not vote.

Alex Lasry

Lasry joined Barnes in focusing on Johnson, as opposed to one another, in the debate. He advocated, as did Barnes, for getting rid of the Senate filibuster to pass a bill protecting abortion rights, passing gun safety laws, protecting the environment and tax changes to benefit the middle class. Lasry noted his union support to make the case for him to take on Johnson.

Tom Nelson

The Outagamie county executive, who has trailed in the polls, attacked Godlewski for not voting in the 2016 election won by Donald Trump. He narrowly carried Wisconsin that year before losing the state by nearly an identical margin in 2020.

Steven Olikara

Olikara noted his experience leading a group called the Millennial Action Project that worked to empower younger people to bridge the partisan divide. He said he was running to change the system and reduce the influence of big money in politics.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.