Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes grew up in Milwaukee with a mom who was a public school teacher and a father who worked in a factory — both union members, an important credential 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 tiny group of black senators — and the first from Wisconsin — if he wins election to the House.
That biography is set to make Barnes one of the most prominent Democrats in the US this year as the party aims to defeat one of its top targets: Republican Sen. Ron Johnson. His ouster is such a priority that Barnes’ top Democratic rivals have pulled out of the primary in recent weeks to rally around him, leaving Tuesday’s primary largely a formality ahead of a brutal and expensive campaign.
“I wanted to make sure we can win this fall,” his closest rival, Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, said when he came out in support of Barnes. “That’s the No. 1 goal.”
Firing Johnson has never been a higher priority for Democrats with majority control of the Senate on the line. He is the only incumbent Senate Republican seeking re-election this year in a state that President Joe Biden carried. But Johnson has proven difficult to beat as he has gone from tea party outsider to one of Donald Trump’s most vocal supporters and Wisconsin’s senior senator.
This election is Johnson’s first against someone other than Russ Feingold, whom he defeated in 2010 and then in a rematch in 2016, losses that still rile liberals in the swing state. Johnson is running for a third term after previously saying he would not.
“Democrats will walk through fire and over broken glass to defeat Ron Johnson,” said Democratic strategist Joe Zepecky.
With his focus increasingly on the fall, Barnes is emphasizing an everyman image in campaign ads, including one at a grocery store where he says most senators don’t know how much a gallon of milk costs.
“But I’m not like most senators,” Barnes says, walking down the aisle of the store. “Or any of the other millionaires running for the Senate. My mom was a teacher and my dad worked third shift.”
Barnes served four years in the state Assembly representing Milwaukee before winning the statewide primary for lieutenant governor in 2018 to pair with Gov. Tony Evers. Evers then defeated Gov. Scott Walker, who had angered Democrats for eight years in office, most famously with Act 10, which effectively ended collective bargaining for most public employees.
Barnes, who still has to overcome a handful of little-known opponents on Tuesday, has already set his sights on Johnson. He often compares beating Walker to what it takes to deny Johnson a third term.
“It’s going to be tough, a tough fight,” Barnes said after Lasry pulled out of the fight. “But I know it’s going to be a lot easier because we’re in this together. And I will remind you that four years ago, the fight to get rid of Scott Walker was a difficult one, a fight that many in the public today said was impossible. But we made it because we were together.”
Johnson raised about $7 million in donations between April and June, more than the entire Democratic field. Barnes raised about $2.1 million. But in the week after Lasry and the others left, Barnes reported raising $1.1 million.
Barnes mounted the most comprehensive campaign in the primary, with key backers from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, raising money and giving a message focused on that middle class. upbringing. When it was reported during the 2018 campaign that Barnes had earned so little that he paid no income tax and participated in the state’s Medicaid program, he took it as evidence that he understood how critical the program is to workers.
Barnes previewed his strategic offensive in his first TV spot after his top rivals dropped out, accusing Johnson of being “out of touch with Wisconsin,” referring to Johnson’s decision not to try to save 1,000 jobs moving out of state. state. Johnson said then that Wisconsin has enough jobs.
Johnson and Republicans are already at work portraying Barnes as too liberal for Wisconsin. In a state that Trump won in 2016 and lost in 2020 by nearly equal votes, the election will again hinge on who can win over independents, a small but key group.
“The power brokers of the Democratic party have now cleared the field for their most radical leftist candidate,” Johnson wrote before the primary. “Socialist policies have created this mess, and a radical leftist senator from Wisconsin is not the answer.”
The Senate Leadership Fund, a political action committee that works to elect Republicans, targeted Barnes for wearing an “Abolish ICE” T-shirt. his supportive comments on the Green New Deal and Medicaid for all; and a 2020 tweet in which he said, “Police compensation only dreams of being as radical as a Donald Trump pardon.”
Republicans also attacked Barnes for his support of ending the cash bail and for comments he made at a candidate town hall last fall about the country’s founding that referenced slavery and colonization. “The United States is the richest, 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 come back to haunt Democrats, said Republican strategist and former Johnson campaign staffer Brian Risinger.
“The question for Democrats now is whether they’ve had a thorough vetting process to have a candidate who can do what they haven’t done before,” Reisinger said. “It’s not clear if they’ve really figured out who can beat Ron Johnson. These candidates haven’t really tested each other.”
Barnes dismissed a question about whether he would have been a stronger candidate if the Democratic primary had been more contentious.
“What is more important is that we are experiencing a unity that has never been seen before,” Barnes said. “In this situation, we started from the gate to build a broad coalition. That’s exactly what we do. It is about uniting the party. And I would say we are more united than ever.”
Johnson was first elected as a fiscal conservative, known for attacking spending and his intention to reduce the national debt. In recent years, as the coronavirus has grown and Trump has fallen, it has become a lightning rod for anti-scientific positions and conspiracy theories in the 2020 election.
He joined the many Republicans who downplayed the riot at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, saying he was not afraid of the rioters but would be concerned if they were Black Lives Matter protesters. It also emerged during a recent House committee hearing on Jan. 6 that Johnson wanted to hand-deliver ballots cast by fraudulent GOP electors to Vice President Mike Pence.
Johnson’s approval rating in a June 22 Marquette University Law School poll was just 37 percent, lower than President Joe Biden’s 40 percent approval rating. But Johnson was even at odds with Barnes. However, enthusiasm among Republicans was higher than Democrats about voting in the upcoming primaries.
Democratic voter Leah Siordia, who attended a Barnes rally with Warren, said she made her choice based on who she thought could beat Johnson. Before leaving Lasry, the 57-year-old retired computer analyst considered him, but she leaned toward Barnes.
“He’s a real person to me, not just a billionaire,” Siordia said of Barnes. He added: “Anyone is better than Johnson.”