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Mandela Barnes May Be Democrats’ Best Hope For Flipping A Senate Seat

One of the most competitive Senate races in November will be in Wisconsin, where the Democratic nominee, Mandela Barnes, who has taken some progressive stances on the issues, is running against the GOP incumbent, Sen. Ron Johnson. Can Barnes win in a state that Donald Trump won in 2016 and barely lost in 2020?


MICHAEL TABB: This is Mandela Barnes, currently the lieutenant governor of Wisconsin, and one of the Democratic Party’s best hopes for flipping a seat in the U.S. Senate.

In one of the most hotly contested races this year, Barnes is trying to present a moderate vision to voters while also taking some strong progressive stances in purple Wisconsin. And while the incumbent, Sen. Ron Johnson, has the lead, it’s a competitive race.

To learn more about Barnes and his chances, I reached out to Alexander Shur, a political reporter at the Wisconsin State Journal, who’s been covering the race since January.

TABB: What was it like getting first acquainted with Mandela Barnes? What do you know about his backstory?

ALEXANDER SHUR: So, as you’ll see in many ads, his parents were both union workers. His mom was a public school teacher, his dad worked on the factory line. And they’re not just on his ads — they’re present at many of his rallies. And he’s used a lot of personal anecdotes to appeal to supporters, including … after it was leaked that the Supreme Court was poised to overturn Roe, he made public that his mom had actually received an abortion. So his background in Milwaukee, coming from one of the most impoverished ZIP codes in the city … that’s been a big part of Barnes’ campaign.

TABB: Barnes became a national figure in 2020 as an outspoken advocate for racial justice and police reform. The lieutenant governor spoke out against the police officers in his state who shot Jacob Blake, and also against Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot three protesters, killing two, at the ensuing demonstrations in Kenosha.

Barnes has landed endorsements from across the Democratic Party, including from some of the country’s highest-profile progressives, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

SHUR: He wants Medicare for All, he wants a Green New Deal that works for Wisconsin, he supports term limits for U.S. Supreme Court justices. And he’s gone as far as saying that he would consider expanding the size of the U.S. Supreme Court. But the No. 1 thing he says is he wants to protect democracy. So his single-most priority, he told me in an interview, was to pass some voting legislation to protect people’s right to vote to reduce discrimination, to kind of patch the Voting Rights Act.

TABB: But his stances have some people wondering if he’s too far left to win in a state that voted for Trump in 2016, even if Biden won there by a narrow margin in 2020.

SHUR: I mean, every time Barnes receives an endorsement from someone recognized as more liberal, more progressive, Republicans are immediately campaigning on it. So it seems like the bet they’re making is that those people are out of touch and their endorsement of Barnes shows that Barnes is out of touch.

TABB: There’s mixed support in the state for left-leaning policies. A poll conducted last year found that 69 percent of Wisconsinites would support the state shifting to more renewable energy sources and 66 percent would support expanding Medicare and Medicaid — but just 36 percent would support redirecting some police funding to social services.

One thing that may help Barnes is that Johnson’s favorability ratings have been low, as many consider him self-serving and uninterested in issues affecting mainstream Wisconsinites. Johnson has tried to block COVID stimulus checks, has voiced indifference to companies that outsource certain kinds of jobs and has voted for tax cuts that benefit some of his wealthiest donors.

Johnson also faces heat for text messages from an aide that suggest involvement in efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.

But as the incumbent, it’s still Johnson’s race to lose.

SHUR: It’s an extremely competitive race. Wisconsin has a history of elections falling around or within 1 percentage point. So, you definitely have the campaigns fired up. You have a lot of money coming in. Republicans are certainly expecting a very high level of engagement. And Democrats are certainly expecting the Supreme Court ruling and a couple other things to kind of catch them up to that.

CLARIFICATION (Aug. 16, 2022, 1:02 p.m.): This video has been updated to clarify that Barnes has taken progressive stances on issues but does not market himself as a progressive candidate.

Michael Tabb is a former video and motion graphics producer at FiveThirtyEight.


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