“We Won’t Be Outworked in This Race”: Can Mandela Barnes Overcome Ron Johnson’s War Chest?

Two US Senate races this year give Democrats their best shots at flipping the seat from red to blue. You may have heard about the first one, in Pennsylvania. The contest has drawn plenty of attention, thanks to John Fetterman‘s near-death experience and to Mehmet Oz‘s love of crudites.

The second, in Wisconsin, is not so much. The matchup is a jump ball pitting an eccentric Trump-allied conservative Republican incumbent against a left-of-center Democratic rising star. senator Ron Johnson has floated conspiracy theories about COVID-19 vaccines, suggested ending Social Security, said that anyone who doesn’t like Wisconsin’s abortion ban “can move,” and has been roiled by controversy around his apparent role in the Trump team’s attempt to overturn the election (his office attempted to give Vice President Mike Pence an alternate slate of electors before the certification of Joe Biden‘s win.) State lieutenant governor Mandela Barnes has so far kept the race close despite being vastly outspent and despite having run a relatively muted campaign—something that’s making some Democratic insiders nervous. “He’s not doing the typical 8 to 10 stops a day you do when you’re in a real dogfight. Johnson is very aggressive,” the veteran Democratic Wisconsin operative says. “Mandela is a young, charismatic guy with good stories to tell.”

This assessment of his schedule makes the Democratic challenger laugh. “Every day is nonstop campaigning. Today was back-to-back Zooms, mostly,” Barnes tells me. “Last weekend we had a real big rally with Senator [Amy] Klobuchar, about 25 miles from the Minnesota border. Even that day, we had a whole day of meet and greets. And the public events are certainly going to ramp up in the coming days.” In September, Barnes has been mixing time in the state’s population centers, Madison and Milwaukee, with travels to far more rural spots, including an Oneida Nation agricultural event outside Green Bay and a stop in Black River Falls, population 3,523.

Johnson’s campaign has ousted Barnes’ roughly $17 million to $7 million, and outside groups have spent roughly $26 million on behalf of Johnson, compared with $16 million for Barnes. Incumbency is a powerful financial advantage, of course. The gap also seems to be a product of the fact that small-dollar donations to Barnes have been sluggish, compared to those for other Democratic candidates around the country—which is surprising, given that this is a highly-winnable, high-stakes race .

Barnes, 35, is also less well-known across Wisconsin, and nationally. The son of a public school teacher and a union auto worker, he was a community organizer in Milwaukee before, at 25, knocking off an incumbent Democratic state assemblyman. He rose quickly through the state party by pairing his middle-class upbringing with a progressive agenda. In 2019, running on a ticket with Tony Evers, Barnes was elected the state’s first Black lieutenant governor and, during Donald Trump‘s years as president, a frequent MSNBC guest. His Senate campaign team expected—correctly—that Johnson and outside groups would nonetheless try to paint Barnes as a stereotypical soft-on-crime, radical left, Black Democrat. Barnes has handed Republicans some helpful material on this front—several years ago posing for a photo holding an ”Abolish ICE” T-shirt, and saying in an interview that increased funding for neighborhood services should come from “over-bloated budgets in police departments .” Wisconsin TV viewers have also been bombarded with ads blaming Barnes and bail reform for crime increases in the state. Barnes, who once sponsored an (unsuccessful) bill to end cash bail in the state, has stuck by his position on the issue; he’s been careful to say that both police and social programs should be extensively funded. Barnes has also countered the Republican fearmongering by playing nice. “He was introducing himself as a middle-class-first Democrat, a likable young man who will help you shovel your walk when it snows,” he says Joe Zepecki, to Wisconsin Democratic strategist. “I’ve known Mandela a long time. He’s a fun guy and he’s a serious guy. But the number of times he’s smiling in these 30-second ads, that’s a choice. They’re putting him in a very good light because they know that’s the threshold they need to cross.”

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