When Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes made his much-anticipated entry into the Democratic primary contest to take on Republican Senator Ron Johnson on Tuesday, the 34-year-old rising star in progressive politics immediately secured a list of endorsements from national groups that have focused on the race. That provided an indication of the seriousness of Barnes’s candidacy, as did the predictably crude attacks from Republican groups that recognize his potential as a challenger to the scandal-plagued incumbent.
Barnes will have to fight for the nomination in a race that features eight other Democrats—several of them impressive contenders with statewide reputations and networks of supporters—and in a fall contest that could decide control of the Senate. Though he has not yet announced whether he will bid for a third term, Johnson has already gained enthusiastic support from former president Donald Trump and has begun to collect campaign money from the right-wing donors who embrace his conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and his lies about supposed threats posed by Covid-19 vaccinations.
What was striking in the 24 hours after Barnes joined the Democratic field was the speed with which progressive groups lined up behind his candidacy. Barnes is a long way from securing the nomination. But, even though his is a relatively late entry in a crowded field, the lieutenant governor has started strong.
“Mandela is a progressive not just in name, but in track record—he has devoted his life to fighting for our families and it shows,” declared Democracy for America’s Chris Scott, as he announced the group’s endorsement. “Mandela is ready to go to the mat on issues like criminal justice reform, climate justice, and ending gun violence because he knows the pain and suffering they inflict firsthand. Just as this Senate run is a natural progression in Mandela’s lifelong pursuit of activism and community-building, it’s a no-brainer that DFA would jump in on day one to back this progressive powerhouse.”
Collective PAC, the nation’s largest political action committee dedicated to increasing Black political engagement and representation, pledged to help Wisconsin’s first Black lieutenant governor “make history again, this time as the first Black U.S. Senator from Wisconsin.”
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which had already backed another progressive contender for the US Senate seat, state Senator Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee), shifted to a dual endorsement that included Barnes. “When we endorsed Chris Larson in this race a few weeks ago, we said ‘this race is too important for us to sit on the sidelines…and if another bold progressive jumps in, we’ll endorse them too,” explained PCCC cofounders Adam Green and Stephanie Taylor. “Mandela Barnes is just such a candidate. Like Chris, Mandela is a longtime ally of PCCC, national progressives, and Wisconsin progressives. Mandela and Chris are the two candidates in this 8-way race who will reliably fight for Medicare For All, a Green New Deal, and bold progressive policies.”
The Working Families Party, which has developed a base of strength in the Milwaukee area and several other regions of Wisconsin, lavished praise on Barnes, with WFP national director Maurice Mitchell saying, “Mandela Barnes is the model Working Families Democrat. Mandela comes from the communities he wants to represent, and he will fight hard to deliver jobs, care, and justice to his constituents. There’s no better candidate to send Ron Johnson packing, and we’re proud to fight alongside Mandela for a future where all of us can thrive.”
The WFP’s endorsement memo outlined the argument for Barnes, a high-profile activist since the days of Wisconsin uprising against former Republican Governor Scott Walker’s 2011 assault on labor rights. “The son of a union teacher and a union autoworker, Mandela was born in one of the most under-invested zip codes in Milwaukee, and has seen firsthand how the GOP has hurt working families across Wisconsin,” it noted. “As Lt. Governor, Mandela Barnes has established himself as a leader on the issues that are driving politics, from COVID relief to racial justice, police accountability, women’s rights to climate change, workers rights to gun safety, voting rights to healthcare to small businesses to the Capitol insurrection. He earned the majority vote of nearly every Wisconsin county in his 2018 victory in the Democratic primary despite being outspent more than two to one, becoming part of the ticket that produced historic midterm turnout and defeated Scott Walker.”
The most important line in any of the endorsements of Barnes was that reference to his having earned a majority of the vote in nearly every county in his 2018 Democratic primary.
Barnes has demonstrated an ability to win votes in rural and small-town regions, which makes him a consequential contender for the nomination and in an anticipated race with Johnson. He is not the only Democratic contender who has done this. Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson makes the point that he has repeatedly been elected—as a Bernie Sanders-aligned Democrat—in a historically Republican region of the state that includes many small manufacturing towns and cities. And most of the contenders have begun making the rounds of county fairs and rural Democratic gatherings.
They get that a whole-state strategy is key to winning Wisconsin.
While it is true that the Democratic strongholds of Milwaukee and Madison provide a lot of the votes in Democratic primaries, and serve as the base for Democrats running in November, Wisconsin is a state with rural progressive and populist traditions where Democrats still have the potential to run well in small towns and farm country. In 2008, Democrat Barack Obama won 45 percent of the small-town and rural vote. That was more than enough, when combined with his strong urban support, to sweep the state. Obama won almost half the state’s counties in 2012, as did Democratic US Senate candidate Tammy Baldwin.
In 2016, however, almost two dozen Wisconsin counties that had voted for Obama and Baldwin backed Trump and, in many cases, Johnson. Hillary Clinton won just 35 percent of the rural vote, losing counties that had voted for George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis as well as Obama.
In 2018, Democrats won a number of those counties back—in an election that saw Baldwin win, along with Governor Tony Evers, Barnes, and state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, another contender for the party’s 2022 US Senate nomination. In the 2020 presidential election, Biden improved the Democratic numbers from 2016 just enough to carry the state. But there is still work to do. That’s something Barnes understands. The video launching his campaign featured plenty of scenes of the candidate jogging through his hometown of Milwaukee. But a substantial portion of it was shot on small farms, where the lieutenant governor has spent a good deal of time over the past several years, and in factories around the state. In interviews, Barnes emphasized the fact that “I’ve been to all 72 counties…talking to people on farms and from rural school districts.”
The endorsements Barnes has secured count for a good deal. But that understanding of the need to focus on all the voters, and all the regions of Wisconsin, counts for even more.