Lieutenant 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, which is important in a state where the labor movement is still a force.
Barnes is 35, about half the age of the average American senator, and would join a small group of black senators — and would be a first from Wisconsin — if he won the election to the House of Representatives.
This biography will turn Barnes into one of the most prominent Democrats in the United States this year as the party aims to defeat one of its main targets: Republican Senator Ron Johnson. Overthrowing him has been such a priority that Barnes’ top Democratic rivals have pulled out of the primaries in recent weeks to rally around him, leaving Tuesday’s primary as mostly a formality ahead of what will surely be a brutal and costly public campaign.
“I wanted to make sure we could win this fall,” Alex Lasry, his closest rival, the Milwaukee Bucks CEO, said when he pulled out and backed Barnes. “That’s goal #1.”
Overthrowing Johnson has never been a higher priority for Democrats with majority control of the Senate at stake. He is the only Republican senator seeking re-election this year in a state sponsored by President Joe Biden. But Johnson proved hard to beat as he grew from a tea party stranger to one of Donald Trump’s most vocal supporters and top Wisconsin senator.
This election is Johnson’s first against someone other than Ross Feingold, who he defeated in 2010 and then in a 2016 rematch, losses that continue to hurt the Liberals in swing. Johnson is running for a third term after previously saying he would not.
“Democrats will walk through fire and through broken glass to defeat Ron Johnson,” said Democratic strategist Joe Zibecki.
With his growing focus on fall, Barnes focuses on everyone’s image in campaign ads, including a picture in a grocery store that says most senators don’t know the cost of a gallon of milk.
“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 the third shift.”
Barnes served four years in the state assembly representing Milwaukee before winning the state primaries for lieutenant governor in 2018 to be paired with Governor Tony Evers. Evers then defeated Governor Scott Walker, who angered Democrats over his eight years in office, most famously his Act 10, which effectively ended collective bargaining for most public sector workers.
Barnes, who still has to get past a handful of little-known opponents Tuesday, has already set his sights on Johnson. The beating of Walker is often compared to what it would take to deny Johnson a third term.
“It’s going to be an uphill, tough battle,” Barnes said after Lasry withdrew from the race. “But I know it’s going to be a lot 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 tough race, and a lot of the audience today said it was impossible. But we got it done because we got 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 withdrew, Barnes reported raising $1.1 million.
Barnes built the most comprehensive campaign in the primaries, with key endorsements from the likes of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, raising funds and delivering a message focused on that middle-class upbringing. When it was reported during the 2018 campaign that Barnes earned so little that he did not pay income tax and was on state Medicaid, he embraced it as evidence that he understood how important the program was to workers.
Barnes outlined his offensive strategy in his first television appearance after his top rivals pulled out, accusing Johnson of being “out of touch with Wisconsin,” citing Johnson’s decision not to try to save 1,000 jobs outside the state. Johnson said at the time that Wisconsin had enough 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 in 2020 with a roughly equal number of votes, the election is likely to fall once again to who can beat the independents, a small but major group.
“The power brokers of the Democratic Party have given way to their most extreme left candidate,” Johnson wrote on Twitter ahead of the primaries. “Socialist policies have produced this mess, and the radical left senator from Wisconsin is not the answer.”
The Senate Leadership Fund, a political action committee that elects Republicans, targeted Barnes for carrying the “Abolition ICE” T-shirt. his supportive comments about the Green New Deal and Medicaid for all; And his 2020 tweet said: “Defunding the police only dreams of being as extremist as pardoning Donald Trump.”
Republicans also attacked Barnes for supporting the termination of cash bail and comments he made at a town hall candidate last fall about the founding of the state that referred to slavery and colonialism. “The United States is the richest and most powerful country on earth, due to forced labor on stolen lands,” Barnes said.
Republican strategist and former Johnson campaign member Brian Reisinger said winning the primaries without facing incoming attacks could come back to haunt Democrats.
“The question for Democrats now is whether they did a thorough vetting process to get 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 shrugged off a question about whether he would be a stronger candidate if the Democratic primaries were more controversial.
“The most important thing is that we’re seeing unity we’ve never seen before,” Barnes said. In this case, we set out from the gate to build a broad alliance. We do exactly that. This is about party unification. I would say that we are more united than we were before.”
Johnson was first elected as a fiscal conservative known for his attack on spending and his determination to reduce the national debt. In recent years, with the spread of the coronavirus and the downfall of Trump, he has become a lightning rod for anti-science stances and conspiracy theories in the 2020 election.
He joined many Republicans who downplayed the riots at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, saying that he was not afraid of the insurgents, but that he would have worried if they were black protesters. It also emerged during a recent House committee hearing on January 6 that Johnson wanted to hand over ballot papers cast by fake Republican voters to Vice President Mike Pence.
Johnson’s favorable rating in a June 22 Marquette Law School poll was just 37%, lower than President Joe Biden’s approval rating of 40%. But Johnson was about to compete with Barnes. However, enthusiasm among Republicans was higher than among Democrats to vote in the upcoming primaries.
Democratic voter Leah Ciordia, who attended Barnes’ rally with Warren, said she was choosing her based on who she thought could defeat Johnson. Before Lasry pulled out, the 57-year-old retired computer analyst had been thinking about him, but she tended to Barnes.
“He’s a real person to me, not just a billionaire,” Ciordia said of Barnes. “Everyone is better than Johnson,” she added.