Sarah Godlewski is no run-of-the-mill Democrat, let alone a left-winger. Unlike some of her progressive competitors for the Democratic Senate nomination, she has strong business and national security credentials and has won in two statewide contests in the key swing state.
She came to politics through a multimillion-dollar socially responsible investment firm she co-founded. When she reached out to the state treasurer’s office to push for more investment in the state, she learned Republicans wanted to eliminate the job through a ballot initiative in 2018. She helped organize a movement to preserve the office, defeating the initiative with 62 percent of the vote. She also won the race that year to fill the office. She now administers a state trust fund of $1.2 billion.
“I think at the end of the day I consider myself a pragmatic leader focused on getting things done,” she told me in an interview on Monday, pointing to her ability to work through gridlock in the state Capitol to help push through a bipartisan child savings account plan and to help public schools bridge the digital divide.
She stressed the need to run a “72-county race,” adding, “You have to be able to meet people where they are and be pragmatic.” In a state where races can be decided by a margin of just a few votes in every precinct, she has positioned herself as the Democrat who can win not just urban areas, but also suburbia and rural Wisconsin.
Incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) presents a juicy target for Democrats. He has been a staunch “no” vote against virtually every Democratic initiative, including infrastructure. In recent years, he has gone full MAGA — lying that the Jan. 6 insurrection was a largely “peaceful protest”; spreading gibberish about covid-19 and anti-vaccine rhetoric; and peddling pro-Russian propaganda.
Godlewski therefore has a choice of issues to focus on. Nevertheless, her primary argument is straightforward: “What do Wisconsinites want? Just to get things done.” She continued: “What has Ron Johnson done? He voted against infrastructure. He voted against emergency covid aid.” She urged Democrats to run on their “record of delivering.”
For example, she noted that 28 percent of rural Wisconsin residents lack high-speed internet, but Johnson opposed the infrastructure bill that would fund broadband for all Americans. She also noted that Wisconsin, despite being a big dairy state, has no one on the Senate Agriculture Committee, which leaves it “without a seat at the table,” she says, to advocate on behalf of her state.
“No doubt trade wars have hurt our farmers,” she said, pointing to the U.S. ginseng crop, 95 percent of which is grown in Wisconsin. After the Trump administration launched its trade war with China, ginseng exports plunged and threatened to wipe out the industry. She also stressed that extreme weather resulting from climate change has wreaked havoc on farmers. Not unlike moderate Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), she’s as comfortable talking crop prices as child care.
On inflation, Godlewski candidly said it has been a “strain on Wisconsin.” Like President Biden, she talks about “putting money back into Wisconsinites’ pocket” by reducing the cost of big-ticket items such as health-care coverage, prescription drugs and child care.
For a state politician, Godlewski has a strong foreign policy background from her time as a military contractor and later as a fellow at the Air War College. She supports Biden’s tough line on Russia. (Johnson, by contrast, stood foursquare behind the former president, who did nothing but bow and scrape before Russian President Vladimir Putin.) More generally, she argued the United States is “getting back on the world stage” after pulling out of the Iran deal, the Paris climate accords and the World Health Organization. She dubs Donald Trump’s retreat from international leadership “horrific.”
On crime, Godlewski said flatly, “I am not a ‘defund the police’ candidate.” She argued the federal government can help by increasing funding to police and to providers of “wraparound” services such as social workers and mental health professionals.
And when it comes to protecting democracy, she said voters she meets are remarkably engaged. In 2018, Democrats won 54 percent of the popular vote for the Wisconsin Assembly, but held only 36 percent of the legislative seats. “That’s because the legislative districts look like letters of the alphabet,” she said. With extreme gerrymandering, she argued, voters “question if legislators are really listening to them.” She also railed against the ludicrous Republican “audit” of the 2020 election that has cost about $1 million. And she is a strong “yes” on dumping the filibuster. “Why can’t the Senate get anything done?” she asked.