Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes heads to the Democratic primary for a Senate seat on Tuesday as the clear favorite to run against Senator Ron Johnson and is already sharpening his attacks on the Republican incumbent.
In advertisements and speeches, Mr. Barnes started Mr. Johnson on what he calls a pattern of hurting the state manufacturing industry and failing workers. While he wants to turn the race into a referendum on Johnson, Barnes has his own vulnerabilities, and Republicans will certainly try to portray him as too left-wing for Wisconsin.
But his strengths and Mr Johnson’s own polarizing qualities (he has put forward false theories about the coronavirus pandemic and doubts about the 2020 election) are fueling a race that could help decide control of the Senate. .
“What he managed to do is quite impressive — to put the whole field behind him in such a short space of time,” said Joe Zepecki, a Democratic strategist in Wisconsin. “He gets a head start, and you just have to tip your hat to him.”
Mr. Barnes, 35, is entering the primary as the clear favorite after three of his main competitors dropped out of the race in a week at the end of July: Alex Lasry, a Milwaukee Bucks executive; Tom Nelson, Outagamie County Director; and Sarah Godlewski, the state treasurer. All three have supported him.
To consolidate support, Mr. Barnes, who is the state’s first black lieutenant governor and would be the first black senator if he won, ran a tight campaign focused entirely on jobs and rebuilding the middle class. In an interview, he said his campaign had benefited from the kind of coalition building he did as a community organizer. He also said it amounts to a wider recognition among Democrats that the stakes are simply too high for infighting.
“This is about uniting the party, but it is also about uniting the state,” Barnes said.
He leads in fundraising and branding among his remaining rivals, including Kou Lee, a restaurant owner; Steven Olikara, a musician; Peter Peckarsky, investigative journalist, attorney and consultant; and Darrell Williams, a state emergency management administrator.
He has received approval from both progressive Democrats such as Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, as well as centrists including Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina.
Wisconsin is one of the most hotly contested political battlefields in the country. Along with Michigan and Pennsylvania, it was one of the key states in the country’s industrial core that won Mr. Trump in 2016, shattering the Democratic “blue wall” and leading to his election.
Since then, the Democrats have made a comeback. In 2018, Tony Evers was elected governor and Senator Tammy Baldwin won reelection. In 2020, President Biden won the state by just over 20,000 votes.
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The race in the Senate is expected to be close. Mr. Johnson, 67, who is seeking his third term, is one of the most vulnerable Republicans this cycle. A recent Marquette University Law School poll found that he was rated favorable by 37 percent of respondents and unfavorable by 46 percent. In addition, Mr. Biden’s polls are poor, and out-of-power parties typically perform well in midterm elections during a president’s first term.
Johnson has alienated many voters by suggesting that gargling with mouthwash could ward off Covid-19 and saying that people who don’t like Wisconsin’s abortion laws can move out. He has downplayed the attack on the US Capitol by saying it doesn’t “look like an armed insurrection” and floating theories that Democrats edited videos to exaggerate mafia violence.
And the Jan. 6 committee of the United States House of Representatives came up with embarrassing evidence this summer that Mr. Johnson wanted to hand over false voters from Michigan and Wisconsin to Vice President Mike Pence. Mr Johnson acknowledged having received the package but claimed he did not know where it came from or what it contained.
But Mr. Barnes stuck to economic issues in his first attack television ad against Mr. Johnson, and echoed his message in the Democratic primary. The ad criticizes Mr. Johnson for publicly praising outsourcing and defending a company that relocated jobs from Wisconsin to China. On the trail, Mr. Barnes has criticized the senator for his comments suggesting that Social Security and health care should be eliminated as federal entitlement programs and instead be approved annually by Congress.
Mr. Johnson has resisted the criticism, arguing that he stood up for small businesses when he pushed for a tax provision in the 2017 Republican tax law to level the playing field for them. “Ron Johnson, a manufacturer himself, helped small businesses in Wisconsin stay competitive with the big boys by making sure they got a tax cut that helped businesses across the state survive the pandemic,” said Ben Voelkel, a spokesperson for the company. Mr Johnson, pointing to the measure. The facility also benefited his family business in plastics.
Independent fact-checkers have found that the claim by at least one Democratic group that Mr. Johnson’s vote for the law rewarded “companies that outsource to China” was false, and a 2021 study by university researchers found that the law incentives for US companies to relocate reduced operations outside the country.
But fact-checkers have also found that Mr. Johnson’s tax provision largely benefited ultra-wealthy Americans rather than small businesses.
Mr Barnes has also been the target of criticism. He has been cited for late paying his property taxes, and Republican activists and local leaders have tried to portray him as a far-left Democrat who supports stances such as abolishing US immigration and customs enforcement.
“Mandela Barnes will speak with both sides of his mouth to convince voters that he is a moderate,” said Mark Jefferson, the executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin.
At one point, Mr Barnes was photographed wearing an “abolition ICE” shirt, although he has said that is not his position. More recently, he opposed the Biden administration’s proposal to end Title 42, a Trump-era policy introduced during the pandemic that has been used to deport most migrants to the border between the United States. Send US and Mexico away. Mr Barnes argued that Mr Biden should first have a comprehensive plan to deal with the increase in people crossing the border.
Mr. Barnes, whose father worked third shift at a General Motors factory and whose mother was a longtime schoolteacher, bets his record and biography will help him weather the attacks. He became a community organizer after seeing former President Barack Obama speak at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
By the time he was 25 in 2012, Mr. Barnes had defeated a sitting state legislator in Milwaukee, his hometown. Four years later, he lost a Senate bid, but in 2018 he won his race to become lieutenant governor with Mr. Evers at the top and a strict focus on the economy.
Katie Rosenberg, the mayor of Wausau, Wisconsin, said Mr. Barnes talked about issues residents care about, including affordable childcare and health care, the expansion of broadband and the need to stop corporate takeovers of family farms. Earlier this year, the two visited small businesses that were ravaged by the pandemic. They even had tattoos done to support a local tattoo parlor. mr. Barnes showed it on his TikTok.
“I’m an optimist,” said Ms. Rosenberg. “I think he can do this. He has a lot of momentum.”