MILWAUKEE ― When Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) came here to campaign for Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes on Saturday, she laid out three reasons she was backing him for Wisconsin’s Democratic nomination for Senate: his support for abortion rights, his vision on combating climate change and his background as the son of two union members.
But she saved the most important reason for last.
“Mandela can win,” Warren told a crowd of about 100 people gathered on the patio of a lakefront bar. “Mandela’s the one who can take it to Ron Johnson.”
The outcome of the August 9 primary might depend on how many Wisconsin Democrats agree with Warren’s assessment of Barnes, a 35-year-old former activist and progressive state legislator who is the first Black person ever elected to statewide office here.
Barnes is one of three Democrats in the running to battle Johnson, a businessman and Republican who has increasingly embraced conspiracy theories as he runs for a third term in the Senate. Barnes has led most public surveys of the race against Alex Lasry, a businessman whose father owns the Milwaukee Bucks, and state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski. A fourth candidate, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, dropped out of the race on Monday and endorsed Barnes.
In-state Democrats view Barnes as the favorite in the primary, with Lasry’s ability to fund his campaign ― he’s already loaned his campaign at least $12.3 million, according to Federal Election commission records ― giving him the best shot at an upset.
Throughout the contest, however, some Wisconsin Democrats have quietly expressed doubt about Barnes’ ability to win in November, fearing he is too liberal on issues like criminal justice and immigration to triumph against Johnson. Barnes’ supporters have responded with skepticism of their own, arguing that Lasry’s out-of-state roots, and his and Godlewski’s wealth, make them unable to draw sharp contrasts with the incumbent.
“People are tired of sending people to Washington who don’t vote in their interest, who don’t advocate on their behalf,” Barnes told HuffPost. “The Senate is broken. It’s a club for millionaires.”
The debate is reminiscent of the 2020 presidential primary, where college-educated white voters in particular fretted and speculated about various candidates’ ability to beat then-President Donald Trump ― arguing about how ideology and demographic background might influence swing voters or turn out reluctant ones. Those electability debates seemed to hurt female candidates like Warren and minority candidates like Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), who has also endorsed Barnes.
That’s not necessarily the case this time around. At a Barnes event with labor supporters at a brewery the night before Warren’s visit, multiple union leaders said Barnes’ own working-class roots ― his mother was a public school teacher, his dad a member of the United Auto Workers ― would appeal even to their unions’ conservative-leaning members as he battles ultra-wealthy candidates in both the primary and general elections.
“He’s a working-class candidate, he’s got the lived experience. He’s not looking down on us from above,” said John Drew, the vice president of UAW Local 72. “There’s a conservative attitude that you need a boring white guy, that people won’t vote for a Black candidate, but I don’t buy that.”
The outcome of the race is crucial: Democrats control the 50-50 Senate only because of Vice President Kamala Harris’ ability to break ties, and Wisconsin represents the party’s most realistic opportunity to oust an incumbent. A victory over Johnson, a Trump loyalist known for his brashness, would limit Republican chances to take control of the Senate, or at least shrink the size of a GOP majority.
The importance of the contest, along with the narrow, upset nature of Johnson’s wins over former Sen. Russ Feingold (D) in 2010 and 2016, has Democrats in the state anxious about making the right choice. In interviews, none of the three leading candidates were willing to say their opponents would be able to beat Johnson in November.
“I just know that my campaign is the strongest against Ron Johnson,” Barnes said.
“I think we’re the best one to be able to win,” Lasry said.
“I think that’s something voters are going to have to look at when they’re making their decision,” Godlewski said.
There have been just three public surveys of the race, all from Marquette University Law School. The most recent, conducted in June, showed Barnes with 25% of the vote, Lasry with 21% and Godlewski with 9% ― and more than a third of the electorate undecided. None of the candidates were well known, with more than half of registered voters in the state saying they didn’t know enough about any of the three to form an opinion. And all three polled in tight, margin-of-error races against Johnson.
With the exception of a handful of attacks from Nelson directed at Lasry’s wealth, the race has been more passive-aggressive than nasty, the contrasts between the candidates left implicit rather than spoken aloud.
Lasry, sitting at the city’s fairgrounds during a food truck festival as his 11-month-old daughter ate cheese curds, never went after Barnes by name while talking to reporters. He did draw a not-so-subtle stylistic contrast, comparing himself to Barnes’ boss in Madison, the famously conventional Gov. Tony Evers (D).
“Tony embodies the politics people are looking for,” Lasry said, noting his own successes in building a new arena for the Bucks. “It’s not this abrasive, aggressive, polarizing politics. They’re looking for people who are actually trying to solve things.”
During the eight-year reign of former GOP Gov. Scott Walker ― whom Evers displaced in 2018 ― Wisconsin became one of the nation’s most polarized states, with Walker working relentlessly to weaken the state’s unions. Trump won the state in 2016, before Evers and Sen. Tammy Baldwin led a Democratic sweep in 2018 and President Joe Biden narrowly won in 2020.
The fear among some Democrats is that Barnes would be a break from the low-key styles of Biden and Evers, and even from the more progressive but still subdued Baldwin, thus providing Republicans with plenty of culture war targets. Barnes once requested and held up an “Abolish ICE” T-shirt, and Republicans have highlighted his support for ending cash bail and his endorsement from groups that backed defunding the police.
Today, Barnes insists he opposes both abolishing ICE and defunding the police. He also came out against the Biden administration’s decision to end Title 42 immigration authority, which gave them more leeway to deport undocumented immigrants during the pandemic.
“It’s not about moving to the center,” Barnes said, noting that he is a longtime supporter of comprehensive immigration reform. “I’ll always be honest about my positions, and those won’t always fall along party lines.”
Still, the anti-Barnes campaign ― inasmuch as it exists ― has mostly been led by so-called “Never Trump” conservative media figures, including longtime Wisconsin radio host Charlie Sykes and Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin. Barnes scoffs at them, pointing to Baldwin’s wins in 2012 and 2018. (Baldwin, an openly gay progressive who backs Medicare for All, won by 10 percentage points in 2018, compared to Evers’ victory of less than a percentage point.)
“People like that said the same thing about Tammy Baldwin 10 years ago,” he said. “This isn’t going to come down to ideology.”
National Democrats insist they have no concerns about the electability of Barnes, or any of the other candidates, pointing to Johnson’s consistent unpopularity in public polling. The June survey from Marquette found that just 37% of registered voters approved of his job performance, while 46% disapproved.
“This campaign will be a referendum on Ron Johnson ― how he’s changed, lost touch with the state, and is too focused on his own self-serving agenda,” said David Bergstein, a spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “We have multiple strong candidates in this race and are confident our nominee will successfully prosecute that case against him.”
And none of the three leading candidates seem inclined to drastically change the Democratic Party’s positioning: All three are running as liberals. When asked why the party’s fortunes in rural Wisconsin had slipped so significantly since the Obama era, the candidates either downplayed the problem or said it was because Democrats failed to “show up,” rather than attributing it to any policy positions.
Godlewski, an Eau Claire native and the only of the three candidates to hail from outside Milwaukee, has emphasized the need to run a “72-county campaign.” She notes that she won Johnson’s home county and eight other Trump-won counties when she ran in 2018.
“I can go to Osseo, Wisconsin, and talk about people’s septic tanks. I can go to Fairfield County and talk about the importance of sitting on the Agriculture Committee when our dairy industry is struggling to keep up,” she said during a visit to a child care center in Milwaukee. “And I can come here and talk about the lack of affordability and options in child care.”
During the primary, Godlewski has focused her campaign on protecting abortion rights, especially since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. On Friday, she went up with her first major ad buy, highlighting her frustrations with Democratic leaders who she says have treated abortion rights “like an extra-credit project.”
“I am frustrated with my own party,” Godlewski says in the ad. “You know, we’ve had 50 years to make Roe into law, but we failed. And you know what? Guys, I’m glad that now that Roe is overturned, you are all now sharing your own personal stories. But I was the only one talking about reproductive rights because for me, this is not an afterthought.”