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Steven Olikara is the aspiring dark horse in the race to unseat GOP Sen. Ron Johnson

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In an era of extreme polarization, candidates often win by appealing to the reddest or the bluest of voters. But in Wisconsin, there's a long-shot Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate who's trying to capture what some call the exhausted majority, an elusive demographic that wants its representatives to stop tussling and get things done. As NPR's John Burnett reports, that is a tough campaign to run.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The candidate is at a meet-and-greet in a supporter's backyard in Milwaukee, standing between a trampoline and a tomato patch, addressing about a dozen people and struggling to break out.

STEVEN OLIKARA: My dad helped with a lot of these lawn chairs. So these are the lawn chairs I grew up with.

(LAUGHTER)

OLIKARA: So thanks for bringing those.

BURNETT: Steven Olikara is the aspiring darkhorse in the race to unseat Republican Senator Ron Johnson. The 32-year-old son of Indian immigrants made his reputation as the founding director of the Millennial Action Project, which seeks to activate young elected leaders in Washington, D.C., and around the country to bridge the partisan divide. He stepped down last year to come home to Wisconsin and enter politics. This is his first rodeo running for office.

OLIKARA: If you hear from a candidate who's not talking about changing the system, they're wasting your time.

BURNETT: The Democratic primary for the Senate seat is next Tuesday. Wisconsin's general election in November will get a lot of national attention because it's considered a toss-up. In 2020, Wisconsin was one of five states that flipped from red to blue, going for Joe Biden by less than 1%. Having worked with young members of Congress as part of the Millennial Action Project, Olikara says he witnessed up close and personal the dysfunction of the institution that he now wants to join.

OLIKARA: Just demonizing the other side, don't get anything done and literally don't do your job.

BURNETT: While the top-tier candidates in the race have talked about abortion rights, high gas prices and racial justice, Olikara is stumping on saving democracy. He proposes taking dark money out of politics that gives exaggerated influence to special interests and reforming the primary system that rewards extremist candidates.

OLIKARA: I'll just close with this. I fully understand when many of you hear this, you might think that this new model of politics where you treat people with dignity and respect, that may sound idealistic. Is this really possible right now? What I would submit to you is I don't think there is another option for our democracy.

BURNETT: What this insurgent underdog campaign is trying to do is engage and energize an overlooked audience.

ASHA SAWYERS: That exhausted majority thing that we keep talking about is not just a slogan or some type of marketing thing.

BURNETT: Campaign staffer Asha Sawyers.

SAWYERS: There is a whole host of people that don't like what they see in politics on either side, and we know that's true. The data is showing us that.

BURNETT: The data she's referring to comes from a widely quoted report called The Hidden Tribes of America. That's where the term exhausted majority comes from. It was coined by a nonprofit in New York called More in Common that studies the forces pulling Americans apart and tries to bring them together. The Hidden Tribes report surveyed the political identities of a cross-section of Americans and concluded that 67% of respondents, including left, right and middle, are just not that interested in politics. They support compromise, and they're turned off by politicians who demonize each other.

DAN VALLONE: That is one of the main takeaways is that we are not as polarized as we think we are.

BURNETT: Dan Vallone is the U.S. director of More in Common. He agrees the challenge for the Olikara campaign is how to turn the sprawling, exhausted majority into a voting bloc.

VALLONE: There is a bit of a chicken and an egg in reaching the exhausted majority because they are harder to reach. They're much less likely to be connected to the infrastructure that campaigns rely on to mobilize voters.

BURNETT: I went looking for someone who might belong to this exhausted multitude and what better place to look than in a lawn chair.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: In Milwaukee's historic Washington Park on a glorious summer night with a jazz group playing in the bandshell, I met Eileen Asbell. She's a 64-year-old retired educator. First, I asked if she'd heard of Steven Olikara. She said she'd noticed him in the Democratic debate last month.

EILEEN ASBELL: And I really believe his voice was really important. We are so stuck in this polarization and tearing each other apart.

BURNETT: But would she vote for him as the Democrat to beat the Republican incumbent?

ASBELL: No, I don't think he'll win. And I don't think he would win the state against Senator Johnson. So that's an issue.

BURNETT: My quest for exhausted voters next took me on the interstate, past billboards for brats and cheese curds, to the city of Green Bay, Wis. There was a Democratic candidate forum there last week.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hello, everybody, progressives and Democrats. Thank you all for coming to the candidate rally tonight.

BURNETT: As it happened, on this night, three of the four leading Democratic Senate candidates had just dropped out of the race. That left a likely primary contest between the upstart long shot, Steven Olikara, and the front-runner, Mandela Barnes. Barnes is the Black lieutenant governor of Wisconsin, who is far out ahead. With the exit of his three main rivals, Barnes now has their endorsements, the backing of the Wisconsin Democratic Party and $7 million in contributions to Olikara's half a million. After the Green Bay candidate forum, I buttonholed Mark Schahczenski, a retired Lutheran pastor in a Panama hat. He told me he's leaning toward Lieutenant Governor Barnes.

MARK SCHAHCZENSKI: He's the front-runner, and I like his progressive agenda. But I was very impressed by the last gentleman, Steve...

BURNETT: Olikara.

SCHAHCZENSKI: Olikara - because of his willingness to solve a systemic problem of getting big money interests out of manipulating politics and his willingness to work across the aisle to make that happen.

BURNETT: In Wisconsin, the election for the Democrat to take on Ron Johnson is coming down to electability.

CHARLES FRANKLIN: People would like money to get out of politics. They would like a less divided, less contentious country in a lot of ways. These are questions that poll well.

BURNETT: Charles Franklin is a veteran Wisconsin political pollster at the Marquette University Law School.

FRANKLIN: But are they the sorts of things that then convert people into actual voters marching to the polls to vote for an alternative? It can happen, but it is extremely hard to do, especially when you're dealing with parties that have become as polarized as we are.

BURNETT: So we're back to the chicken and the egg. Is the exhausted majority too exhausted, or is it too skittish about forsaking the front-runner to back a candidate who wants to change the nature of American politics? John Burnett, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Burnett
As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.