Wisconsin's U.S. Senate race: campaign cash offers early indicators

In 477 days, Wisconsin will play a key role in who controls the U.S. Senate – and now, we are getting a peek into the candidates' war chests, an early indicator of how the race is shaping up.

Leading the fundraising race is Sen. Ron Johnson. In April, May, and June of 2021, Johnson raised $1.2 million.

"He’s not even a declared candidate and if you look at where his support is coming from, it’s coming from a lot of smaller donations, donations less than $200 -- and those are the grassroots supporters that he’s always relied on," said Ben Voelkel, former Johnson spokesman.

Ben Voelkel

Ben Voelkel

Johnson is leading the 2022 field in capturing those small-dollar donations. According to data from the Federal Election Commission, the majority of his 2022 contributions are gifts of $200 and under.

Despite his fundraising, the sitting senator has said again and again, he is undecided about running in 2022.

"I don’t have to make that decision for quite some time. These campaigns are way too long, they spend way too much money. I’m doing everybody a favor taking time to decide and taking time to announce," said U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin).

Sen. Ron Johnson

Sen. Ron Johnson

Johnson's possible Democratic rivals are already bringing in that campaign cash, a first test for voters.

"Primary voters are going to be concerned about: are you going to be able to bring in the big haul that is required to be able to win the race? It really becomes a question of perception and electability," said Shawn Matson, Democratic strategist.

Alex Lasry

Alex Lasry

Alex Lasry, on leave as Milwaukee Bucks senior vice president, tops Democratic Senate hopefuls in Wisconsin – having raised $1 million in the past quarter, which represents the months of April, May and June. 

During the same second quarter, State Treasurer Sara Godlewski raised $513,000 – and Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson raised $240,000. Wausau radiologist Gillian Battino raised $100,000, which included a $70,000 loan she made to her campaign. Adam Murphy, a business consultant from Franklin, put $100,000 into his campaign. Democratic state Sen. Chris Larson, of Milwaukee, raised about $51,000 over the period. Steven Olikara, founder and former chief executive of Millennial Action Project, is considering running and his exploratory committee raised $61,000.

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All of the candidates had to reveal their second quarter war chests in filings with the Federal Election Commission.

Joe Zepecki

Joe Zepecki

"It is very early. It is so early there are very few indicators of the relative strength of these different Democrats running for office. And that’s why they matter," Democratic strategist Joe Zepecki said of the federal fundraising filings. "It is one of the very few benchmarks that folks have to look at and say: this candidate is stronger or weaker than the other one. And that is why these numbers matter."

Political operatives on both sides of the aisle see signs for optimism in the latest federal fundraising reports.

"Even post-Donald Trump, the Democratic base is really engaged, really wants to see this seat in Democratic hands, and are not taking for granted the progress we made since President Biden took office," said Zepecki.

"Sen. Johnson’s most recent fundraising report shows that he has a network of grassroots support, that represents actually people who have actual votes here in the state of Wisconsin," said Voelkel. "I think that contrasts pretty strongly with some of the other candidates on the other side of the aisle who are pulling in big checks from the West Coast, the East Coast."

The race is about to get larger. Several Democratic sources confirmed to FOX6 that Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes will jump into the U.S. Senate race on Tuesday, July 20. His team announced he is planning a speech in Milwaukee at noon.

New ratings from the Cook Political Report say Wisconsin is a toss-up U.S. Senate race, one of only three in the country, along with North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

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