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A Democrat who dropped out of the Wisconsin Senate race is giving the party a $600,000 surprise gift

Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry plans to use previously paid-for airtime to go after GOP Sen. Ron Johnson, who is seeking re-election.
Lt. Gov. of Wisconsin and Democratic Senate candidate Mandela Barnes speaks at a rally outside in Madison on July 23, 2022.
Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, a Democratic candidate for the Senate, speaks Saturday at a rally in Madison.Sara Stathas for The Washington Post / via Getty Images

The Milwaukee Bucks executive who dropped out of the Wisconsin Senate race this week is in a giving mood.

After he immediately threw his support behind fellow Democrat Mandela Barnes, the state’s lieutenant governor, Alex Lasry is now offering another gift to boost his former rival.

Lasry said he will use $584,000 worth of previously purchased airtime to run attack ads against Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, his campaign told NBC News.

The ads, set to begin airing Saturday, will focus on Johnson’s voting record, as well as his past comments about a Wisconsin company’s moving out of the U.S. to make products that are “dirt cheap.”

While the ads don’t promote Barnes, they will help accelerate Democrats’ ability to look toward the general election campaign for one of the most vulnerable senators seeking re-election.

Before he dropped out of the race Wednesday, Lasry was Barnes’ most formidable opponent in the primary field. Lasry, who is hosting a fundraiser for Barnes on Friday, spent more than $12 million on advertising to boost his name identification and had been polling a close second to the lieutenant governor.

Following the Friday exit of state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, who was polling in the single digits last month, Barnes now has no major opponents in the Aug. 9 primary.

Barnes has kept his front-runner status since he entered the race, and Lasry’s own tracking data showed Barnes was pulling away, Lasry said in an interview. He dropped out just after another Democratic candidate, Tom Nelson, ended his run.

Godlewski ended her campaign just two days after Lasry’s exit and also endorsed Barnes, further clearing the field for him.

Barnes had initially been cast as too progressive to win an election for federal office, and Republicans as recently as Wednesday to paint Barnes as too liberal by pointing to a photo of him holding up an “abolish ICE” shirt.

The Barnes campaign made it clear early in the primary that Barnes did not support the movement, nor did he support “defunding the police,” but Republicans are certain to keep up the attacks in the general election if Barnes is the nominee.

“Mandela Barnes is the dream candidate for Ron Johnson,” said Charlie Sykes, a former conservative talk radio host in Wisconsin and editor-in-chief of The Bulwark. “The prospect of running against Mandela Barnes was probably one of the factors that actually convinced Johnson to run for a third term.”

Sykes and other Republicans said in interviews that the GOP is likely to target the Milwaukee suburbs, where a small number of centrist voters could tip the balance, with messaging that casts Barnes as too far to the left. Democrats, however, will have plenty of material with which to present Johnson as a polarizing figure who’s known for making controversial statements, including comments about Covid-19.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., speaks during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on April 26, 2022, in Washington.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., speaks at a Foreign Relations Committee hearing April 26 in Washington.Bonnie Cash / Pool via Getty Images file

“With Mandela Barnes, the race shifts from being a referendum on what an embarrassment Ron Johnson is to now being a real choice,” Sykes said. “Johnson had been the most vulnerable incumbent in the country, but now it’s not an up-and-down on his conspiracy theories or misinfo on vaccines or ties to Jan. 6 or overall kookiness. Now, it’s really a choice between Johnson and someone that is perhaps, or at least can be easily painted as being, not in the political mainstream.”

In the most recent Marquette Law School poll, Barnes narrowly led Johnson, and Johnson’s campaign has signaled it is preparing for Barnes as the Democratic nominee.

“It’s clear Democrats are uniform in their support for more of the same Biden policies that got us in this mess in the first place: runaway spending, the Green New Deal, defunding the police and abolishing ICE,” the campaign said in a statement after Lasry dropped out. “That vision for the future will be a tough sell for so many Wisconsin families that are suffering from record inflation, high gas prices, out of control crime and an unsecured border.”

Barnes spokeswoman Maddy McDaniel said comments like those were motivated by “how scared they are of this match-up.”

“They know that when faced with the choice between Ron Johnson, a self-serving and out-of-touch multimillionaire, and Mandela Barnes, a champion for the middle class and working people who has spent a decade in service to this state, Wisconsin voters will choose Mandela,” McDaniel said.

Barnes has already made strides countering the far-left image sought by Republicans. After having initially been tied to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Barnes has broadened his support to include different flanks of the party, such as Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

“The lieutenant governor has put together a really strong coalition,” Lasry said. “It’s a testament to the campaign he’s run and the message he’s been running on.”