Health care divisions persist in key Democratic Senate primary

Seven Senate hopefuls in Wisconsin split on health care during forum

Democrats have been divided in recent election cycles over how to address disparities in health care coverage.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Democrats have been divided in recent election cycles over how to address disparities in health care coverage. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted June 29, 2021 at 3:26pm

Addressing disparities in health care coverage and rising costs remains a stark dividing line in competitive Democratic primaries, a Senate candidate forum in Wisconsin demonstrated on Tuesday. 

Divisions over health care have rankled Democratic contests in recent election cycles, as the party's candidates made protecting the 2010 health care law central to their general election campaigns. Health care was one of the few issues that split the six Senate candidates and one potential candidate who joined a virtual WisPolitics forum, with some candidates backing a government-run “Medicare for All” proposal, and others supporting a public health care option.  

As one of two states Republicans are defending that President Joe Biden won in November, Wisconsin is a top target for Democrats looking to grow their razor-thin Senate majority. Biden, who was in Wisconsin on Tuesday to tout a bipartisan infrastructure package, carried the Badger State by less than 1 percentage point last year. GOP Sen. Ron Johnson has not yet said whether he will run for a third term.  

During the hourlong forum, each candidate described health care as a “human right.” Two Democratic candidates voiced support for a public option, which Biden also backed during last year’s contentious presidential primary. 

“I’m with President Biden,” said Alex Lasry, an executive for the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team, which his father co-owns. Lasry said adding a public health care option is “the quickest and most effective way to ensure that everyone is covered.” 

State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, who was endorsed by EMILY’s List on Tuesday, also said she supported a public option. 

“We fought very hard to make sure Obamacare is the rule of this land ... So no, I don’t want to scrap it and start all over,” Godlewski said. She later added, “We have to expand Medicaid, we have to expand Medicare, and, yes, we need universal coverage through a public option.”   

Three other candidates — state Sen. Chris Larson, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson and radiologist Gillian Battino —  backed “Medicare for All.” Each described health care as a personal issue. 

Nelson said that both his mother, who has passed away, and his wife battled cancer and they both had access to adequate health insurance, which is not available to every American. Battino noted her father died at 29 due to heart disease. Larson, who is backed by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, recalled rationing his asthma medication because it was not covered by his health insurance.

One potential candidate did not explicitly back either policy, but said more broadly that the country needs a “health care guarantee.” Steven Olikara, who has formed an exploratory committee, called for allowing Medicare to negotiate with prescription drug companies for lower costs. Olikara founded the Millennial Action Project, a non-profit aimed at fostering cooperation between millennial politicians.

The primary field could continue to grow, since Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes is considered a potential Senate candidate. 

Democrats have also been divided over whether moving too far to the left on health care could alienate moderate voters. Support for a single-payer system wasn’t a problem for Wisconsin’s other senator, Democrat Tammy Baldwin, who is one of 14 co-sponsors of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare for All” legislation. She won a second term by 11 points in 2018. 

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the Wisconsin Senate race as one of eight battlegrounds in 2022.