The High-Stakes Wisconsin Senate Primary Without The Fight
Democrats in Wisconsin are (mostly) playing nice now in order preserve unity against Ron Johnson this fall. How will that impact the primary's outcome?
In Democratic politics in Wisconsin, Mark Pocan acts as a sort of High Priest.
The progressive congressman from Madison wields enough respect inside the party to enforce a certain utopian golden rule: Thou shall not go negative on your primary opponent.
Pocan rarely chooses favorites in intra-party races in order to preserve his image as impartial arbiter, and he says he abides by a simple two-strike system for enforcement.
If he notices any inkling of someone skirting close to the aggression line, he’ll place a private call or dispatch a text to the candidate as a courtesy warning.
“Often it’s as simple as something as a tweet and you just say, ‘Hey, there’s another way you could’ve said it that would’ve been better.’ And that’s good enough,” Pocan told me.
But if that candidate runs afoul a second time, Pocan threatens to go public to call out the violation and reprimand the culprit. It’s meant to serve as a deterrent in a state that still prides itself on being Midwest NICE.
“They have to realize someone who’s neutral in the race going after someone can be pretty devastating if they’re trying to move forward and win in August,” he says matter-of-factly.
Wisconsin is holding the final consequential Democratic U.S. Senate primary of the 2022 cycle on August 9, where five main contenders are fighting for the chance to lock horns with the Senate’s only visibly vulnerable Republican incumbent, Ron Johnson.
But truth be told, there hasn’t been much sustained fighting at all between the Democratic candidates.
“Sleepy is the best word for it,” says Joe Zepecki, an unaligned Democratic operative in Milwaukee. “It just hasn’t been a dynamic contrast.”
Some of this is credited to history that dates back to 1992 — the last truly contested Democratic Senate primary — when a little known state senator named Russ Feingold benefited from a volley of blistering attacks between his two better-known millionaire primary opponents. (Feingold went on to win and become a fulcrum of the progressive movement.)
And at least part of this unspoken detente can be credited to Pocan, who disclosed to me that he has made privately reached out to at least one candidate to keep the peace in this Democratic primary ahead of the coming war against RoJo or RonJon, depending on your parlance preference.