When Wisconsin’s United Auto Workers unions endorsed Mandela Barnes for the US Senate earlier this year, they did not make the announcement in Milwaukee or Madison or Green Bay. Instead, Barnes accepted the endorsement in Oshkosh, a historic manufacturing town on the shores of Lake Winnebago in the state’s industrial Fox River Valley. Barnes wanted to do the event in the city of 67,000 because its plight speaks to the issues that are at the heart of his campaign against Ron Johnson, the state’s constantly embattled Republican senator.
“This is another community that Ron Johnson has left behind. It’s another group of people that Ron Johnson has taken for granted,” Barnes declared to nods of approval from the UAW members who had gathered for the announcement.
Although Wisconsin’s senior senator has faced a backlash for casting doubt on the reliability of vaccines, dismissing Social Security as “a Ponzi scheme,” denying climate change, and struggling to answer questions about his role in a “fake elector” scheme associated with Donald Trump’s attempted coup, Barnes believes that another aspect of Johnson’s record will lead to his downfall. The 35-year-old lieutenant governor is convinced that Johnson’s support for the outsourcing of jobs from Oshkosh—and other communities that are struggling with deindustrialization—will dislodge a senator who “won’t even stand up for his hometown.”
Johnson is from Oshkosh, where he managed a plastics company started by his wife’s brother before spending $9 million of his own money to win a Senate seat in 2010. But Barnes is determined to win the city this fall, along with the surrounding Winnebago County, which went 51-47 for Trump in 2020. If Barnes runs as well as he hopes to in Oshkosh and midsize cities like it across the state, he stands a good chance of winning the seat. And if the Democrats hold the seats they’re defending in a chamber that’s evenly split between the two parties and can knock off Republicans like Johnson, the Senate’s partisan balance will tip in their favor. How far it might tip, and whether the Democrats will finally be able to deliver on President Joe Biden’s boldest promises, remains to be seen. The party in power usually loses seats in the midterm elections. But as of Labor Day, polls had Democrats either tied or leading in races for Republican-held seats in as many as five states. And their best prospects appear to be in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where a pair of Democratic lieutenant governors, Barnes and John Fetterman, have captured imaginations with their smart campaigns and strong poll numbers.
Like Fetterman, Barnes is a progressive who has broken the mold for Democrats running in the traditional battleground states of the Great Lakes region. Both candidates have made a point of fighting for votes in every county of their state, including those that backed Trump, and they are doing so with a firm embrace of working-class voters and the unions that represent them. There’s a logic to this approach. For Democrats to win in the Great Lakes battleground states, they need to run up their numbers in the big cities and college towns that are their partisan strongholds, keep their losses to a minimum in historically Republican rural areas, and renew their prospects in the midsize industrial cities and surrounding counties where Trump’s faux populism made inroads in 2016 and continues to attract support. “You need to make it clear to people in places like Kenosha and Racine and Oshkosh, who are worried about outsourcing and the loss of good union jobs, that the Republicans aren’t going to help them,” says John Drew, former president of UAW Local 72 in Kenosha, where in 2010 Chrysler closed a sprawling engine plant that was once one of the state’s largest employers. “Mandela Barnes understands that.”
In Barnes’s case, Johnson has proved to be a perfect foil. While the Democratic challenger has emphasized his own working-class roots in his advocacy for the renewal of manufacturing, the wealthy incumbent has declared that he couldn’t care less about Wisconsin workers and their communities.
Oshkosh serves as Exhibit A in the case against Johnson. Last year the community’s biggest employer, Oshkosh Corporation, landed a contract to build 165,000 US Postal Service vehicles. Worth an estimated $6 billion, and with as many as 1,000 new jobs in the offering, it seemed like a dream deal for the city. And it would have allowed Oshkosh to stake a claim as a manufacturing hub for the next generation of commercial delivery vehicles—in particular the electric vehicles that the Biden administration has made a focus of its clean-energy initiatives.
But then Oshkosh Corporation announced plans to move production of the postal vehicles to a nonunion plant in South Carolina. In response, UAW Local 578, the union that represents the company’s manufacturing workers in Wisconsin, launched a “We Can Build It!” campaign. The state’s junior US senator, Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat from Madison, threw herself into the effort, as did state officials. But Ron Johnson, the hometown boy, dismissed the fight for these jobs as unnecessary. “It’s not like we don’t have enough jobs here in Wisconsin,” Johnson announced at a press conference in February. “The biggest problem we have in Wisconsin right now is employers not being able to find enough workers.”
Nonplussed reporters pressed him on the issue. But Johnson, an Ayn Rand fan who has defended deindustrialization and outsourcing as “creative destruction,” was adamant, saying he wouldn’t insert himself “to demand that anything be manufactured here using federal funds in Wisconsin.” In the end, he argued that “when using federal tax dollars, you want to spend those in the most efficient way, and if it’s more efficient, more effective to spend those in other states,” he doesn’t have a problem with that.
Barnes told me that he couldn’t believe his eyes when he read the quotes from Johnson.
“It’s not just 1,000 jobs. It’s 1,000 opportunities for families—like the opportunities I had because my parents had good union jobs,” he said. “We cannot sit by while we have a sitting politician who’s shipping good union jobs out of our state and costing our working families opportunities.”
“It’s his own backyard,” Barnes added. “He wouldn’t stand up for jobs in Oshkosh. I will.”
For Barnes, this issue is personal. His dad, a UAW member, spent 30 years assembling catalytic converters at a Delphi Corporation plant in the city of Oak Creek. “He’d be the first to tell you that if you want something built right, you build it right here in Wisconsin with our incredible union workforce,” Barnes said.
Few politicians in Wisconsin or elsewhere are as deeply invested in working-class issues and concerns as Barnes is. He can trace his family’s union lineage across the generations with the specificity of a labor scholar. His grandfather came north from Louisiana in the middle of the last century, during the Great Migration of Black Americans from the South to the factory cities of the North, finding a job at the massive A.O. Smith steelworks that once employed 10,000 Milwaukeeans. “My granddad was a Smith Steel Worker,” Barnes said, recalling the name of the independent union that workers at the plant organized in 1934, when they made 50 cents an hour. “My dad was UAW Local 1866 at Delphi in Oak Creek. My mom was MTEA: Milwaukee Teachers Education Union.”
Like a lot of Wisconsinites, Barnes knows the reality of outsourcing and deindustrialization not as an academic issue but from lived experience. “I think about the factory where my dad worked,” he said. “Because of outsourcing, it’s gone. It’s a strip mall now. I think about the factory where my grandfather worked. Because of outsourcing, it’s gone. I learned growing up that we have to take outsourcing seriously. This is personal for me. It’s an issue that’s personal for every union worker, for every member of a union family in Wisconsin.”
Barnes grew up in an activist household, and his parents, Jesse and LaJuan, named their only child for the iconic leader of the anti-apartheid movement that they both ardently supported, future South African president Nelson Mandela. Jesse Mandela Barnes quickly embraced his middle name and the liberation sensibility associated with it. Raised in a home where political discussions were the norm and where quick wit was expected, Barnes developed a dry sense of humor that continues to serve him well on the campaign trail.
His Twitter handle for more than a decade has been @theothermandela. He picked it not long after the 2011 Wisconsin Uprising, when public workers organized mass demonstrations against Republican Governor Scott Walker’s assault on union rights. Inspired by the moment, the then-25-year-old community activist challenged an incumbent Democratic legislator in a 2012 primary and won. In the State Assembly, Barnes served as a proud progressive whose youthful energy sustained him through the all-night legislative sessions during which he fought against Walker’s constant attacks on unions, which culminated in the passage, in 2014, of a draconian “right to work” law. Barnes was just as outspoken on behalf of reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, voting rights, legal reform, funding for rural schools, and Medicare expansion, creating a steady counternarrative as Walker used his office to position himself for a 2016 presidential run. When that bid failed, the governor came back to Wisconsin to seek a third full term. Barnes was ready and waiting.
In 2018, the former legislator won the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor by a two-to-one margin, winning every region of the state over a candidate who significantly outspent him. Barnes became the dynamic young running mate of Tony Evers, the 66-year-old state superintendent of public instruction who admits that he’s “not the most exciting guy.” The combination worked, and it rattled Republicans. “They started attacking Mandela Barnes to get at Tony Evers,” recalls Randy Bryce, an ironworker who mounted a congressional campaign in southeast Wisconsin in 2018.
Setting a pattern that has continued into this year’s Senate race, Barnes was attacked for every misstep he’d made—some unpaid parking tickets and a college degree that wasn’t awarded until a technical issue with the transcript was cleaned up—as well as for things he did not do. Shortly after Barnes was nominated for lieutenant governor, the Republican incumbent, Rebecca Kleefisch, claimed that he had taken a knee, in the spirit of the Milwaukee-born football player Colin Kaepernick, during the national anthem at the Wisconsin State Fair. It never happened. Though Barnes and Evers had both said they supported the right of athletes and others to protest racial injustice, Barnes stood for the anthem. The first Black man to be nominated for the state’s second-highest office suggested that the attack was motivated by a desire to stir resentment. “The lieutenant governor actually went out and lied about something, made up an entire scene that never took place,” he said. “I don’t know if she wants to stoke some real tensions that we have.” Then–Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who is now the US ambassador to Luxembourg, was on the podium with Barnes at the fair. He was more direct. The attack was “racially tinged,” Barrett said, arguing that Republicans had “perfected the dog whistle.” Kleefisch ultimately apologized, and Evers and Barnes narrowly defeated the GOP ticket in November of that year.
But Republicans in Wisconsin and nationally have not given up trying to “other” Barnes in an overwhelmingly white swing state with constant claims that he is anti-American and “dangerous.” This summer, as the Senate campaign was heating up, conservatives circulated a year-old video from a public library event in Portage, Wis., where Barnes described the decision to allow slavery at the founding of the United States as “awful.” The lieutenant governor’s nuanced remarks about the need to address the legacy of human bondage, segregation, and racism drew a warm response from the crowd in the central Wisconsin community of 10,000. But Missouri Senator Josh Hawley tried to suggest Barnes was unpatriotic. Kleefisch, who was mounting an unsuccessful bid for the Wisconsin Republican gubernatorial nomination, demanded that Governor Evers rebuke the lieutenant governor “for these awful comments about our great nation.”
Barnes took it all in stride, and for good reason. The over-the-top Republican attacks were so desperate that they may have solidified his position as the front-runner in a primary race in which he was outspent by several candidates but ultimately opened up a lead large enough to prompt his top three rivals to stand down and endorse him. In the August 9 primary, Barnes won four out of every five votes and carried all 72 Wisconsin counties. He won by some of his largest margins in the rural counties that he’d visited on his extended “Barnes for Barns” tour of farming regions. Declaring victory as Wisconsin’s Democratic nominee for the US Senate, Barnes reflected: “Growing up, I didn’t see a lot of politicians who looked like me or a lot of politicians who shared my experience. I also didn’t see a lot of candidates who had the lived experience of being in the working class, and quite frankly I still don’t. Now, I don’t fit the bill of what a ‘normal’ politician ‘should’ look like—”
Someone in the crowd shouted, “Thank you!”
“I have learned that is not a bad thing. That is a good thing,” Barnes continued, as the crowd erupted in applause. “We need more real people in the United States Senate, because, as you all know, the way that we’ll change Washington is when we change the people we send to Washington.”
Barnes was picking up on the classic populist theme of his campaign, an argument that Johnson simply “does not understand” working-class Wisconsinites. “This is a person who secured more than $200 million in tax deductions for a handful of his wealthiest donors, but he won’t lift a finger to keep good-paying jobs right here in Wisconsin. This is a person who went on to double his own wealth, but thinks that it makes more sense to ship good jobs overseas—good union jobs, family-sustaining jobs,” Barnes said. “Plain and simple, if it doesn’t help his bottom line, if it doesn’t help his own donors or his own special interests, Ron Johnson can’t be counted on to support it.”
“True! True!” shouted people in the multiracial, multiethnic crowd, as Barnes ripped into Johnson for trying to divide Wisconsin. He continued: “It is time for us to be represented by people who actually share our experiences. I am the proud son of a middle-class union household. Like most people in Wisconsin, I’m not a billionaire. I don’t have the backing of big pharmaceutical companies or oil companies. What I do have is skin in the game. I have the backing of hard-working, honest people.”
A lot of Democrats try to hit that progressive populist high note, but Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, an early and enthusiastic Barnes backer, says few do it as well as the Wisconsinite. Warren hails Barnes as “not only not Ron Johnson, which is like the first threshold,” but as “the 51st vote” for progressive programs that were stymied and stalled over the past two years.
She’s right. Barnes has already made it clear that he wants to upend the filibuster and get the Senate to take bold action on a range of issues, including the codification of Roe v. Wade. Barnes has gone out of his way to highlight his pro-choice stance on the campaign trail and in an ad featuring the candidate and his mother discussing her decision to end a troubled pregnancy. “It was my decision. Not some politician’s,” says LaJuan Barnes, as her son adds, “Every woman has the right to make her own decision. And I’ll fight alongside you every step of the way until you do.” In Wisconsin, where an August poll found that more than 60 percent of voters disapproved of the Supreme Court’s decision to roll back abortion rights in its Dobbs ruling, the issue is one that state Democratic Party chair Ben Wikler and others think will benefit Barnes and the rest of the party ticket this fall. But no one suggests the race will be easy.
Despite going for Biden in 2020, Wisconsin remains a battleground state, where four of the past six presidential elections were decided by fewer than 25,000 votes. It’s a state that backed Trump by less than 1 percent of the vote in 2016 and rejected him by about the same margin in 2020. And Johnson and his backers have already poured tens of millions of dollars into what’s likely to be the most expensive Senate race in the state’s history. So Barnes knows he can’t take anything for granted. This means that, before Election Day, he’ll be back in Eau Claire, Janesville, and Oshkosh with a message he’s certain will resonate far more deeply with working-class Wisconsinites than the attack ads from Johnson.
It’s a message that asks voters to make a common-sense assessment of the two candidates: a millionaire who says he won’t help his own hometown secure jobs, or the working-class son of a union household who says he will fight for every community and every job. “It is important for people to make a real choice at the ballot box, and honestly, I feel that my contrast with Senator Johnson cannot be more apparent,” Barnes previously told me. “I would plunge the median income in the Senate if I was elected. It would free-fall.”
For Barnes, the distinction is a source of pride. He argues that it sends a signal about which side he is on.
“You’ve got to look at politicians and their financial interests—especially when you are talking about ultra-wealthy politicians. They are not going to take votes that make them less rich,” Barnes told me. “If the decision is to take a vote that helps to uplift the community or increases their [own] wealth, the community is going to get left behind every time.”
Will voters in Oshkosh hear that message over the din of negative ads? “I’m going to make sure they do,” Barnes said. “Unlike Ron Johnson, I’ll take their fight to the US Senate.”