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Alex Lasry to drop out of Wisconsin Democratic Senate primary

The Milwaukee Bucks executive's expected departure essentially clears the field for Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and positions him to challenge GOP Sen. Ron Johnson in November.
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Alex Lasry, a Democratic candidate for the Senate in Wisconsin, plans to drop out of the primary race Wednesday, his campaign confirmed.

The decision means front-runner Mandela Barnes, the state’s 34-year-old lieutenant governor, is solidly positioned to advance to face Republican Sen. Ron Johnson in November.

Lasry, an executive for the Milwaukee Bucks NBA franchise, recognized that he was not on a path to victory and decided to “seek party unity now,” a source familiar with his decision but not authorized to speak about the matter said in an interview.

A source with the Lasry campaign said Lasry told Barnes about the decision Tuesday. Barnes then began calling people, the source said. At a news conference in Milwaukee later Wednesday, Lasry formally endorsed Barnes, saying it was "clear" that his former opponent was "the best person to be able to defeat Ron Johnson."

“My decision came down to the stakes of this election are really high," Lasry said in an interview. "I think this is going to be one of the most important elections in the country. We started to see a lot of data points in the last seven to 10 days showing that the race was breaking in Mandela’s way.” 

Lasry's decision was first reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Recent polling had shown a close race between Lasry and Barnes. Last month’s Marquette University Law School poll found Barnes drawing 25% support of registered Democratic primary voters, while Lasry had 21%. State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski received 9% support in the poll.

Lasry left the race one day after Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson dropped out. Lasry’s name, however, will still be on the ballot next week. Early voting started in Wisconsin on Tuesday, and the state Elections Commission reported that almost 139,000 absentee ballots had already been returned by Wednesday.

He dropped out despite his immense personal spending on the race. Lasry sank at least $12.3 million of his personal wealth into his campaign — money that made him the largest ad spender in the race by a significant margin. Lasry spent $10.7 million on TV, radio and digital ads through Wednesday, according to the ad-tracking firm AdImpact, more than twice the amount spent by Barnes and Godlewski combined.

Lasry had several conversations with U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin in the days leading up to this decision, seeking her guidance, the campaign source said. Lasry also spoke with Gov. Tony Evers beforehand. While the most recent Marquette Law School poll had Lasry and Barnes nearly neck and neck, the campaign source said that there were signs that Lasry was slipping in the polls and that he wanted to move quickly to defeat Johnson.

Barnes, now the prohibitive favorite in the Aug. 9 primary, will be able to turn his attention to the general election against Johnson, who is seeking a third term.

“I am so grateful to Alex for all of the work he’s done to move Wisconsin forward, and I’m proud to have his endorsement,” Barnes said in a statement. “Throughout this race I have always been proud to call Alex a friend. I look forward to continuing that friendship as we hit the trail.”

The stakes for Democrats could not be higher. Senate control could hinge on Wisconsin’s Senate race — for one of just two Republican-held seats up for grabs in states Joe Biden won in 2020. The race is rated as a toss-up by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Lasry, who is originally from New York, moved to Milwaukee in 2014 after his father, Marc Lasry, purchased the Bucks with a group of investors. The younger Lasry has worked as a senior vice president for the franchise since then.

He launched his campaign early last year, touting his work with the organization, his efforts to bring the 2020 Democratic National Convention to Milwaukee and his support for a higher minimum wage and racial justice movements. He also branded himself a "Make It in America" Democrat in many ads, earning him the support of many labor leaders in the state.

Lasry, however, never overtook Barnes’ lead in the polls.

Barnes, meanwhile, gained even more momentum in recent weeks with a series of high-profile endorsements — from Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Cory Booker of New Jersey and others. He was early to brand himself a progressive — a move that some politics watchers have noted has already attracted attacks from Republicans.

Barnes, who goes by his middle name in honor of Nelson Mandela, the former South African president and anti-apartheid activist, grew up in the inner city of Milwaukee and attended college at Alabama A&M, a historically Black university. He worked as a community organizer before he won a seat in the State Assembly in 2012, representing part of the north side of Milwaukee.

After he won the 2018 Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, Barnes and Evers toppled Gov. Scott Walker, a two-term Republican. The victory made Barnes the first Black person to hold the office and only the second Black person ever to win a statewide race in Wisconsin. He would be the first Black senator to represent Wisconsin if he wins the general election against Johnson.