MADISON, Wis. – 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 be the first from Wisconsin — if he wins election to the chamber.
That biography stands to turn Barnes into one of the most prominent Democrats in the U.S. 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 dropped out of the primary in recent weeks to rally around him, leaving Tuesday’s primary as mostly a formality ahead of what’s certain to be a brutal and expensive general election campaign.
“I wanted to make sure we can win this fall,” his closest rival, Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, said when he dropped out and supported Barnes. “That is the No. 1 goal.”
Ousting Johnson has never been a bigger priority for Democrats with majority control of the Senate on the line. He's the only incumbent Senate Republican seeking reelection this year in a state that President Joe Biden carried. But Johnson has proven tough to beat as he's grown from a tea party outsider into 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 2016 rematch, losses that still sting liberals in the swing state. Johnson is running for a third term after previously saying he wouldn't.
“Democrats will walk through fire and across broken glass to beat Ron Johnson,” Democratic strategist Joe Zepecki said.
With his focus increasingly on the fall, Barnes is emphasizing an everyman image in campaign ads, including one in a grocery store in which he says most senators don’t know what a gallon of milk costs.
“But I’m not like most senators,” Barnes says, walking down the store aisle. “Or any of the other millionaires running for Senate. My mom was a teacher and my dad worked third shift.”
Barnes served four years in the state Assembly representing Milwaukee before he won the statewide primary for lieutenant governor in 2018 to be paired with Gov. Tony Evers. Evers then defeated Gov. Scott Walker, who enraged Democrats over eight years in office, most famously for his Act 10 law that effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers.
Barnes, who must still get past a handful of little-known opponents Tuesday, has already turned his sights to Johnson. He frequently compares beating Walker to what it will take to deny Johnson a third term.
“It’s going to be difficult, an uphill battle,” Barnes said after Lasry dropped out of the race. “But I know it’ll be that much easier because we’re in this together. And I’ll remind you that four years ago, the race to get rid of Scott Walker was a difficult one, one that a lot of people in the audience today said was impossible. But we got it done because we came 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 dropped out, Barnes reported raising $1.1 million.
Barnes built the most well-rounded campaign in the primary, with key endorsements from the likes of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, raising money and delivering 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 was on the state's Medicaid program, he embraced it as evidence that he understood how critical the program is for working people.
Barnes previewed his attack 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 attempt to save 1,000 jobs moving out of state. Johnson said at the time 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 a nearly equal number of votes, the election will once again likely come down to who can win over independents, a small but key group.
“The power brokers of the Democrat party have now cleared the field for their most radical left candidate,” Johnson tweeted before the primary. “Socialist policies have produced this mess, & a radical left Senator from Wisconsin is not the solution.”
The Senate Leadership Fund, a political action committee that works 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, “Defunding the police only dreams of being as radical as a Donald Trump pardon.”
Republicans have also attacked Barnes for supporting ending cash bail and comments he made at a candidate town hall last fall about the founding of the country that referenced slavery and colonization. “The United States is the most wealthy, the most powerful nation on earth, and it’s because of forced labor on stolen land,” Barnes said.
Winning the primary without facing the attacks that are to come may come back to haunt Democrats, said Republican strategist and former Johnson campaign staff member Brian Reisinger.
“The question for Democrats now is have they 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 have not really tested one another.”
Barnes deflected a question about whether he would be a stronger candidate if the Democratic primary had been more contentious.
“What’s most important is that we are experiencing a unity that has not been seen before,” Barnes said. “In this state, we set out out of the gate to build a broad coalition. We are doing just that. This is about uniting the party. And I would say that we are more united than we’ve ever been before.”
Johnson was first elected as a fiscal conservative, known for attacking spending and intent on lowering the national debt. In recent years, as the coronavirus rose and Trump fell, he became a lightning rod for anti-science positions and conspiracy theories on the 2020 election.
He joined the many Republicans who have played down the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, saying he wasn’t scared by the insurrectionists but would have been concerned if they had been Black Lives Matter protesters. It also emerged during a recent Jan. 6 House committee hearing that Johnson had wanted to hand-deliver ballots cast by fake GOP electors to Vice President Mike Pence.
Johnson’s favorability 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, enthusiasm among Republicans was higher than Democrats for voting in the upcoming primary.
Democratic voter Leah Siordia, who attended a Barnes rally with Warren, said she was making her pick based on who she thought could beat Johnson. Before Lasry dropped out, the 57-year-old retired computer analyst was considering him, but she was leaning toward Barnes.
“He's a real person to me, not just a billionaire,” Siordia said of Barnes. And she added: “Anybody’s better than Johnson.”