When Elizabeth Warren recently stumped in Wisconsin for the progressive US Senate candidate Mandela Barnes, she reminded crowds that Barnes is not a billionaire who can “just write a check” to pay for his campaign. The Massachusetts senator was picking up on a major theme for Wisconsin’s 35-year-old lieutenant governor in his bid for the Democratic nomination, in one of the highest-profile Senate races of 2022. With Warren at his side, Barnes told supporters in Madison, “I don’t have millions and personal wealth.”
Unlike a pair of wealthy rivals in the August 9 Democratic primary—Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry and Wisconsin State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski—and the Republican incumbent, Ron Johnson, Barnes can’t fund his own campaign. Raised in one of Milwaukee’s most economically depressed neighborhoods, he is the son of a United Auto Workers member and a public school teacher. His latest financial disclosure form listed assets of less than $75,000.
As a front-running contender in the primary race, however, Barnes argues that his background is an asset. He says Democrats need a nominee who is clearly distinguished from Johnson, whom the challenger dismisses as “a multimillionaire who sells out working families while giving his wealthiest donors $215 million in tax breaks.”
“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 told me. “I would plunge the median income in the Senate if I was elected. It would free-fall.” The Democrats’ best hope for connecting with frustrated voters in a midterm election year characterized by economic volatility and high inflation is to nominate “more people with a real-world, working-class experience,” he explained.
Barnes is not the only Democrat this year who’s arguing that the party needs to elevate more working-class Senate candidates. In Missouri, when Trudy Busch Valentine, the granddaughter of the beer baron August Anheuser Busch Sr., entered the race for that state’s open Senate seat, she got immediate pushback from her top rival. “Missouri deserves a warrior for working people, a proven patriot who’s served his country, who has the courage to stand up to criminal politicians, corrupt elites running massive multinational corporations, and billionaire heiresses who have been stripping our communities for parts,” declared the campaign of Lucas Kunce, a Marine Corps veteran and a former director of national security policy at the American Economic Liberties Project. Kunce has called out political compromises that see “bipartisan majorities vote for Wall Street bailouts, bad trade deals, Big Oil subsidies, forever wars, and overseas nation building,” and has promised not just to flip the seat from Republican to Democrat but to upend a political status quo in which “billionaires get to call all the shots in our economy.”
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Barnes raises similarly populist themes. “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,” the lieutenant governor said. “If the decision is to take a vote that helps to uplift the community or increases their wealth, the community is going to get left behind every time.” The candidate is so certain this message will resonate that he’s made it central to a campaign ad in which he tells voters, “I’m not like most senators, or any of the other millionaires running for Senate. My mom was a teacher; my dad worked third shift. I know how hard you’re working, and I know that by bringing manufacturing home, we create jobs and we lower costs. If we want to change Washington, we’ve got to change the people we send there.”
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted the ad’s “reference to multimillionaires Lasry, Godlewski and Johnson.” The Republican incumbent spent $9 million of his own funds to finance his initial Senate bid in 2010. This year, Johnson—who famously objected that the 2017 Republican tax cuts didn’t go far enough to help the owners of corporations—is relying on large donations and corporate PAC money to fund a campaign that has already spent $6.9 million and has benefited from more than $5 million in outside spending.
At the same time, Lasry is writing substantial checks to pay for a campaign that has already spent more than $8 million—64 percent of which was self-financed by the candidate, according to the independent nonprofit OpenSecrets. Of the more than $5 million that Godlewski has raised, almost 65 percent is self-financed. In contrast, Barnes’s self-financing figure is zero, as is that of Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, a progressive populist who has ranked fourth in recent polling.
Barnes, whose campaign is based on donations averaging less than $40, is at or near the top in recent polls. He’ll be outspent, but he’s confident that he has the winning message for a fall campaign against a millionaire Republican. “Not being a millionaire gives me a better perspective,” said Barnes, who argues that voters will respond to a candidate who recognizes that “the reason the Senate is so broken is because these people do not share the experience of everyday Americans.”