How this populist Democrat is taking on Ron Johnson in Wisconsin

Wisconsin has experienced its share of political wildcards: being snubbed by Hillary Clinton, handing Donald Trump and Joe Biden victories, and hosting a COVID-19 debacle at the Democratic National Convention.

Now, Democrats are hoping for another surprise in the making: a populist millennial senator.

Democrats have gone all-in on Mandela Barnes, the state’s 35-year-old lieutenant governor, to oust Republican Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.) as part of their keep-the-Senate strategy this fall. Critics think it will take a lot to see that seat turn blue. Skeptical optimists call it a toss-up. But others see a nation in economic hardship over inflation, a myriad of GOP scandals and a flawed, unpopular opponent as encouragement that the purple battleground could actually deliver Barnes a victory.

“He is really the embodiment of Wisconsin values,” state Sen. Kelda Roys (D) told The Hill. “That’s one of the reasons that he connects across the state, regardless of geography, regardless of political affiliation, regardless of income.”

Democrats in Washington have leaned into Barnes’s obvious progressive streak. He’s against corporate PAC money and is for Medicare for All and environmental protections by way of a Green New Deal that’s tailored to Wisconsin’s priorities. He’s also backed by liberal Senate heavyweights, Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), whose ranks he hopes to join, and a slew of grassroots organizations. Notably, Barnes has also secured support from Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who endorsed early in the race. 

“He’s a top priority,” said Rahna Epting, executive director of MoveOn, which backed Barnes during the primary and is investing in his race. 

“He’s tapped into the national zeitgeist,” she said. “This is not a normal election. The Republicans that are running this cycle have embraced the MAGA ideology, which is anti-democratic, it is taking away our rights and freedoms, and he is clearly running to protect them.”

At the local level, however, Democrats see Barnes in another light, as something harder to categorize. Those on the ground largely believe his economic populist push to uplift the middle class surpasses any branding attempts — either by national party figures or the Republican opposition. It’s not that they don’t see the progressive throughlines, it’s just that they believe he’s not confined to them.

“Mandela is able to, in some sense, not exactly transcend political labels, but the way that he talks and the issues he talks about are things the vast majority of Wisconsinites care about,” Roys said. 

“We want to have affordable health care. We don’t think that seniors should not get to have prescription drugs. We don’t think that people should be bankrupted to pay for their insulin. That’s not a radical position,” she said. “That’s a position that’s shared by the majority of Democrats, independents and Republicans.”

A source close to Barnes familiar with his campaign apparatus echoed that assessment. 

“Barnes has been campaigning as a leader focused on building a coalition across the state,” said the source. “Not appealing to a select ideological group.”

That strategy — leaning less on big bucket identifiers like “liberal” or “progressive” — has gained traction this cycle among Democratic candidates competing against Republicans in swing states. In Pennsylvania, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is running a populist bid against Mehmet Oz, the GOP nominee, and in Georgia, Stacey Abrams has tacked to the center to reach voters from Atlanta to Athens in her quest to beat current Gov. Brian Kemp in a rematch. While they enjoy the support of many left-wing organizations and elected officials, they have strategically distanced themselves from those descriptions. 

Wisconsin is no exception. The state went for Trump and former Gov. Scott Walker (R), while also electing Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D) and former President Obama. In 2020, Biden squeaked by with just about 1 percent of the vote. It’s constantly ranked one of the nation’s most unpredictable battlegrounds, with voters embracing everything from deep-red and -blue ideology to considering themselves totally apathetic to politics. 

The outcome in November is expected to have an outsized impact on the Senate’s makeup. A Barnes victory would likely give Democrats a strong chance to maintain their majority, while offering them hope for the next presidential cycle, where election watchers have already started turning their attention. Earlier this month, the Republican National Committee announced that it will hold its 2024 convention in Milwaukee, the site of the DNC’s event in 2020.

The midterms are leading up to that, and Democrats are looking to Barnes to boost their prospects through an economic message that they believe resonates especially well now, while millions of Americans are still struggling as the Biden administration looks to make improvements at home. 

“I know Republicans love to talk about their grab bag of opposition research that they think makes this guy out to be something he’s not, but the reality is, all his paid communications is squarely focused on a growing the middle-class message,” said Joe Zepecki, a Democratic strategist based in Wisconsin. “Talking about his background, his upbringing, which roots him in the Wisconsin experience in a way that, I’m sorry, Ron Johnson’s experience doesn’t.”

Indeed, Barnes’s focus on income inequality creates what many in the party hope is an inherent contrast. Where Johnson has millions of dollars in the bank, Barnes has spoken about financially struggling at times. His campaign has centered around themes like the rising price of goods and high cost of everyday living to get at that sentiment. In Barnes’s first ad, he said he believes most senators aren’t able to identify the price of a gallon of milk, which has increased with inflation, along with other groceries.  

“His policy plans and paid ads have focused on economic issues,” said the campaign source close to Barnes. For the nail-biter race, that means “bringing manufacturing back to Wisconsin, supporting family farms and cutting taxes on the middle class.”

Polling shows a close contest. The latest FiveThirtyEight average placed them within just a few points, but some state and national Democrats predict that Barnes will ultimately pull ahead with a more comfortable margin. A new survey released by Marquette Law School on Wednesday showed 51 percent of registered voters in the state support Barnes, while 44 percent are in favor of Johnson.

Democrats argue that Johnson’s favorability in the state – where he hit just a 37-percent approval rating in the latest Marquette University Law School poll taken in June – and Barnes’s experience as the state’s lieutenant governor will ultimately give him an edge.  

They also point to his identity as one factor that could help inspire infrequent or younger voters to vote for the Democratic ticket, which is notably more diverse than on the Republican side. Should Barnes win in November, he would be the state’s first Black senator.

“It’s a signal,” Zepecki said. “When you look at the Republican candidate for governor, and the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, and the Republican candidate for senator and you see three white guys, and then you turn and you look at the Democrats and you have a white guy who’s a candidate for governor, a woman who’s a candidate for lieutenant governor, a young Black man who’s a candidate for the United States Senate, because that is such a different look, I do think it is helpful on the margins.” 

“Here in Wisconsin, because it’s 50-50 all the damn time, it all matters,” he said.

Updated: 10:40 a.m.

Tags Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Hillary Clinton James Clyburn Joe Biden Mandela Barnes Ron Johnson Ron Johnson Wisconsin Senate race
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