Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes grew up in Milwaukee with a mother who was a public school teacher and a father who worked in a factory — both union members, an important reference in a state where the labor movement is still a force.
At 35, Barnes is nearly half the age of the average U.S. senator and would join a small group of black senators — and be the first from Wisconsin — if he wins the House election.
That biography will turn Barnes into one of the most prominent Democrats in the US this year as the party seeks to defeat one of its main targets: Republican Senator Ron Johnson. His impeachment is such a priority that Barnes’ main Democratic rivals have stepped out of the primaries in recent weeks to rally around him, making Tuesday’s primaries largely a formality for what is sure to be a brutal and expensive general election campaign.
“I wanted to make sure we can win this fall,” said Alex Lasry, president of Milwaukee Bucks, when he pulled out and backed Barnes. “That’s the number 1 goal.”
Impeaching Johnson has never been a higher priority for Democrats with Senate majority control at stake. He is the only incumbent Republican in the Senate to seek reelection this year in a state that wore President Joe Biden. But Johnson has proved hard to beat, as he has gone from a tea party outsider to one of the most vocal supporters of Donald Trump and the senior senator from Wisconsin.
This election is Johnson’s first against anyone other than Russ Feingold, whom he defeated in 2010 and then in a rematch in 2016, losses that still stab liberals in the swing state. Johnson is running for a third term after previously saying he wouldn’t.
“Democrats will walk through fire and over broken glass to defeat Ron Johnson,” Democratic strategist Joe Zepecki said.
Increasingly focused on the fall, Barnes is emphasizing every man’s image in campaign ads, including one in a grocery store where he says most senators don’t know what a gallon of milk costs.
“But I’m not like most senators,” Barnes says as he walks down the shopping aisle. “Or any of the other millionaires running for the Senate. My mother was a teacher and my father worked in the third shift.”
Barnes served four years in the state assembly representing Milwaukee before winning the 2018 statewide primaries for lieutenant governor to be linked to Governor Tony Evers. Evers then defeated Governor Scott Walker, who infuriated Democrats for eight years in office, best known for his Act 10 that effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers.
Barnes, who has yet to get past a handful of little-known opponents on Tuesday, has already set his sights on Johnson. He often likens beating Walker to what it takes to get Johnson out of a third term.
“It’s going to be tough, an uphill battle,” Barnes said after Lasry dropped out of the race. “But I know it’s going to be a lot easier because we’re in this together. And I remind you that four years ago, the race to get rid of Scott Walker was a tough one, one that many people in the audience believe was impossible today. But we made it because we came together.”
Johnson raised about $7 million in donations between April and June, more than the entire Democratic field. Barnes raised approximately $2.1 million. But in the week after Lasry and the others quit, Barnes reported that he had raised $1.1 million.
Barnes built the most complete campaign in the primaries, with key messages of support from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, raising money and conveying a message aimed at that middle-class upbringing. When it was reported during the 2018 campaign that Barnes had earned so little that he paid no income taxes and participated in the state’s Medicaid program, he embraced it as proof that he understood how important the program is to working people.
Barnes previewed his offensive strategy in his first TV spot after his top rivals dropped out, accusing Johnson of being “out of touch with Wisconsin,” citing Johnson’s decision not to try to save 1,000 jobs leaving the state. Johnson said at the time that Wisconsin has plenty of jobs.
Johnson and Republicans are already working to portray Barnes as too liberal for Wisconsin. In a state that Trump won in 2016 and lost by a nearly equal vote in 2020, the election will likely again come down to who can win independents, a small but important group.
“Democratic leaders have now cleared the field for their most radical left-wing candidate,” Johnson tweeted before the primary. “Socialist policies have created this mess, and a far-left senator from Wisconsin is not the solution.”
The Senate Leadership Fund, a political action committee working to get Republicans elected, targeted Barnes for holding an “Abolish ICE” T-shirt; his supportive comments about the Green New Deal and Medicaid for all; and a 2020 tweet in which he said, “Relieving the police, only dreaming of being as radical as a Donald Trump pardon.”
Republicans have also attacked Barnes for supporting the ending of bail and comments he made in a city hall candidate last fall about the creation of the country that referred to slavery and colonization. “The United States is the richest, the most powerful nation on Earth, and that’s because of forced labor on stolen land,” Barnes said.
Winning the primary without facing the attacks to come could haunt Democrats again, said Republican strategist and former Johnson campaign aide Brian Reisinger.
“The question for Democrats now is whether they’ve had a thorough research process to have a candidate who can do what they haven’t done before,” Reisinger said. “It’s not clear if they really know who can beat Ron Johnson. These candidates have not really tested each other.”
Barnes dismissed a question of whether he would be a stronger candidate if the Democratic primary had been more controversial.
“The most important thing is that we experience a unity that has not been seen before,” Barnes said. “In this state, we went out of the gates to build a broad coalition. We do just that. This is about uniting the party. And I’d say we’re more united than ever before.”
Johnson was first elected as a fiscal conservative, known for his attacks on spending and intent to lower the national debt. In recent years, when the coronavirus emerged and Trump fell, he became a lightning rod for anti-scientific views and conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.
He joined the many Republicans who put down the riots in the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, saying he was not afraid of the insurgents, but would have been concerned if they had been Black Lives Matter protesters. . It also emerged at a recent committee hearing in the House on Jan. 6 that Johnson had intended to hand over the ballots cast by fake GOP voters to Vice President Mike Pence.
Johnson’s favorable rating in a June 22 Marquette University Law School poll was just 37%, lower than President Joe Biden’s 40% approval rating. But Johnson was about even in matchups with Barnes. However, the enthusiasm among Republicans was greater than among Democrats to vote in the upcoming primaries.
Democratic voter Leah Siordia, who attended a rally in Barnes with Warren, said she made her choice based on who she thought could beat Johnson. Before Lasry quit, the 57-year-old retired computer analyst considered him, but she gravitated toward Barnes.
“He’s a real person to me, not just a billionaire,” Siordia said of Barnes. And she added: “Everyone is better than Johnson.”