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The Democratic primary that could determine the future of abortion rights

The only way Democrats can codify Roe v. Wade into law is with a world-beating bank shot that requires two new votes to weaken the filibuster. Enter Battleground Wisconsin.

Senate races in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania represent Democrats’ best chance to net two extra Senate seats — enough, presumably, to chip away at chamber rules that empower the minority party to block legislation. President Joe Biden boosted their effort Thursday by endorsing an exemption to the 60-vote threshold to preserve nationwide abortion rights.

But Democrats need to beat historical odds and hold the House to make that happen. And even if they do, they still need to pick someone to challenge Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), a human controversy-seeking missile who opposes abortion rights and has given confusing accounts of his actions on Jan. 6, 2021 — but has confounded Democrats for two straight Senate races.

Ahead of the state’s August 9 primary, the Supreme Court’s Roe decision supercharged competition among the leading Democratic contenders to take on Johnson. Their jostling illustrates the party’s intense focus on picking the best candidate to capitalize on progressive energy over the high court ruling, which halted Planned Parenthood’s abortion procedures in the state.

“We need people who are willing to step up to get rid of the filibuster and to pass the laws in this country that we so desperately need,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “We need pro-choice fighters.”

Warren, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) are backing Mandela Barnes, Wisconsin’s 35-year-old lieutenant governor who’s led the polls for months. However, 34-year-old Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry is catching up down the stretch after spending millions of his own dollars.

That’s not all: Sarah Godlewski, the 40-year-old state treasurer, and Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, 46, fill out the top tier of candidates in a state with a history of surprising Democratic primaries.

All four candidates offer a generational contrast from the tempestuous Johnson, who at 67 is running for his third term after twice beating former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.). Each Democratic candidate wants to eliminate the filibuster to preserve Roe, and none believe in any abortion restrictions.

The biggest difference among them is on adding seats to the Supreme Court, a liberal goal that Nelson supports, Barnes is open to and Godlewski and Lasry oppose.

Progressive Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) agreed that little separates the quartet on abortion. But with the stakes so high for Democrats, all four are going full-tilt to present themselves as the primary field’s biggest abortion rights advocates.

Barnes, who’d be the state’s first Black senator if elected, says his record in Wisconsin politics is as “a very dear friend to Planned Parenthood.” Lasry says his wife’s work for Planned Parenthood in Wisconsin allows him to see “firsthand every day” the fight for abortion rights. Godlewski says she can more effectively prosecute the case against Johnson as the Democratic primary’s only woman, while Nelson touts his ratings with abortion rights groups.

The race has a decidedly Midwest-nice vibe, with the candidates generally staying publicly trained on Johnson rather than each other — though there’s plenty of trash-talking behind the scenes. And since Democrats need to beat Johnson to have any hope of executing their agenda next year, party leaders are trying to keep it that way.

“If anyone does anything unfair, I call them first, personally. And if they don’t stop doing it, I’ll call them out publicly. I haven’t had to do that yet, the second part. I’ve had to do the first part a couple of times,” said Pocan, who is neutral in the Senate primary and described his role as “just trying to keep peace.”

That may become more difficult as national attention turns to the four-way swing-state skirmish. In an interview, Barnes sharply questioned nominating a wealthy candidate like Lasry or Godlewski to take on Johnson, himself a wealthy conservative businessman.

“If our case to voters is that our multimillionaire is better than Republicans’ multimillionaire? I don’t see that as a winning message. People are tired of the millionaire’s club. They want people in Washington to understand exactly what they’re going through,” Barnes said.

Asked to respond, Lasry said he doesn’t want to engage in a “sideshow” but took a subtle shot himself.

“What voters are tired of is these career politicians with no record of accomplishment … just always looking for the next thing to run for,” Lasry said.

Godlewski said she launched her campaign with abortion-access messaging, adding a jab that when “you look at other people in this race, they just decided to talk about it recently.”

But if there’s anyone truly testing Pocan’s peacemaker skills in the Senate primary, it’s Nelson, who’s running as the purest progressive.

“It’s one thing to be a defender of women’s reproductive rights in a blue part of the state, quite different in a red or purple part of the state,” Nelson said of his time in the state legislature. “Mandela was there for two terms, but he represented one of the most Democratic and pro-choice districts in the state. You know, whoop-dee-doo.”

Barnes led the latest Marquette University poll with 25 percent of 369 Democratic primary voters, while Lasry had 21 percent, Godlewski 9 percent and Nelson 7 percent. Several Democrats recalled Feingold coming out of nowhere in 1992 to win the party’s Senate nomination with iconic ads claiming an endorsement from Elvis and declaring he wouldn’t “stoop” to his opponents’ mudslinging.

In other words, people in the state warn that a whole lot can change in six weeks, and all four candidates look competitive with Johnson. Moreover, more than a third of the primary electorate is undecided, a sign that Wisconsin’s primary is under-the-radar just five weeks before Election Day.

“That race has been competitive all along. And not a lot of people have been talking about it,” said Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), who said the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm is smart to remain neutral.

According to the candidates, however, the Roe reversal — as well as Johnson’s anti-abortion position and confusing answers about his staff forwarding a false-electors note on Jan. 6 — has brought the messy primary to the forefront of voters’ minds. Barnes said he had his best fundraising day ever the day of the Supreme Court decision, and Lasry said it “crystallized the stakes of this election” against Johnson.

“It really shook up the race,” Nelson said. “The pro-choice side has been on defense for the last 50 years, and now they’re on offense.”

Johnson praised the Supreme Court decision on abortion but said it will be up to the states to figure out specific abortion policies. That’s proven difficult in Wisconsin, which has a Democratic governor, a GOP-controlled legislature and an 1849 law restricting abortion. As Godlewski put it: “We’re not going to be able to get this done at the state level. So our only hope is to get this done at the federal level.”

That’s going to require a straight flush from Democrats: keep the House, protect all of their Senate incumbents and pick up two seats, probably including Wisconsin. With anti-filibuster John Fetterman winning Pennsylvania’s Democrat Senate nomination already, that makes the primary in America’s Dairyland among the most vital political dates left on the calendar this year for Democrats.

“Unless we take out Ron Johnson, we’re never gonna have the majority in the Senate,” Pocan said. “We’re trying to keep everyone focused on the prize.”