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Mandela Barnes looks ahead to the general election against Sen. Ron Johnson

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Johnson Barnes

Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson.

Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who on Tuesday will likely become the first Black major party nominee for U.S. Senate from Wisconsin, first aspired to enter politics when he watched then-Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention speech.

“That’s the thing that did it for me,” Barnes said, explaining his reaction when he watched the speech that would cement Obama as a national force. “I felt like the things around me could change if we worked hard enough.”

Barnes became the presumptive Democratic U.S. Senate nominee in Tuesday’s primary after his top opponents recently dropped out and endorsed him. Now Barnes is in one of the highest-profile political battles in the country, taking on U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, a two-term incumbent whose campaign coffers far surpass what Barnes has raised so far.

None of Barnes’ remaining opponents on Tuesday — Millennial Action Project founder Steven Olikara, attorney Peter Peckarsky, Kou Lee and Darrell Williams — have polled above 1% in the Marquette Law School Poll.

Johnson and Barnes are as divergent in their political positions as their backgrounds. Barnes is a 35-year-old Black man from a middle-class Milwaukee background who has been immersed in state government since his 20s; Johnson is a white 67-year-old multimillionaire living in Oshkosh who had no political experience until becoming a senator in 2011.

Barnes supports Medicare for All, while Johnson’s political beginnings are largely founded on his fury toward the Affordable Care Act. Barnes wants to impose term limits on U.S. Supreme Court justices and would consider expanding the court; Johnson opposes both proposals. Barnes sharply criticized the high court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, while Johnson praised it. Barnes wants to abolish the filibuster, and Johnson wants to keep it.

Among the few things the two have in common is they’re each being billed by the other side as a person out of touch with Wisconsin voters.

“I do believe that Mandela Barnes vs. Ron Johnson is going to give you as clear of a contrast in policies and perspective for D.C.,” said Keith Gilkes, a Republican strategist. “And I think it’s an opportunity for Ron Johnson to clearly define where he stands and the principles governing his approach to how he does his job as U.S. senator, versus the policies that Mandela Barnes would be advocating for from a more progressive, liberal perspective.”

Gilkes said the contrast will work better for Johnson than Barnes because of voter uncertainty about the economy, and Johnson is better positioned on that issue.

“Mandela Barnes is going to be advocating for more spending, more government programs, more entitlements, and Ron Johnson is going to vigorously continue his record in the past of fighting the expansion of government and government spending,” Gilkes said.

That included just this past week Johnson calling for programs like Social Security and Medicare to require yearly congressional approval, a move that would likely lead to long fights over allocations.

Johnson said such a move would be fiscally responsible, but Democrats from Barnes to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer criticized the suggestion, saying Johnson wanted to put the programs on the chopping block.

Democratic strategist Mike Tate said he doesn’t see a compelling argument from Johnson for how he has been able to help put more money in the pockets of working Wisconsin families or would begin to do so going forward.

“I mean, I think that’s the fundamental difference here (between Barnes and Johnson),” said Tate, who advised former Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Alex Lasry’s campaign.

Race takes shape

Overall, Johnson’s campaign message focuses on reducing inflation, crime and undocumented immigration, which Johnson blames on Democratic control of Congress and the White House. While Johnson had been mostly tight-lipped about the Democratic candidates this year, he recently changed course after Barnes’ top-tier Democratic opponents dropped out.

“Socialist policies have produced this mess, & a radical left Senator from Wisconsin is not the solution,” he said on Twitter.

By Monday, Johnson’s campaign was criticizing Barnes for not directly answering a WKOW reporter’s question about whether the country was in a recession. Instead, Barnes’ response was that “we have seen unprecedented growth,” adding that growth leads to inflation.

“The economy is a mess and it’s because of the reckless Biden economic policies that Mandela Barnes wants to double down on with higher taxes and trillions more in spending,” Johnson spokesperson Ben Voelkel said in a statement.

Barnes — who has campaigned on rebuilding the middle class, abortion rights and patching up what he considers threats to democracy — said he wants to meet voters where they are, while Republicans “attempt to lead with fear and division.”

“This is a race that won’t be determined about red or blue, left or right,” Barnes said. “It’s about who’s been at the top and the people who have been left at the bottom.”

Barnes has called Johnson self-serving and a “pro-insurrectionist Senator.” He along with other Democrats have consistently slammed Johnson for working a provision into a 2017 tax bill that mostly benefited the wealthiest Americans, including some of his top donors. Johnson has campaigned on that provision too, saying it helped business owners.

On July 30, Barnes’ campaign released an ad criticizing Johnson for praising outsourcing and saying Wisconsin has enough jobs.

“Ron Johnson’s out of touch all right, and we’re paying the price,” the ad states.

Affected by issues

Barnes’ campaign has been personal in many ways. He often refers to people in his life who have passed away from gun violence when he talks about his proposals to limit more of it. He revealed his mother received an abortion and sometimes refers to it when he campaigns on abortion rights. He mentions his parents’ past as union workers when he talks about rebuilding the middle class.

Asked how his rationale has evolved since he entered politics, Barnes said, “My motivation is and has always been standing up for working families, just like mine, all across the state of Wisconsin. ... And right now, I wouldn’t say that the rationale changed at all because the people that Ron Johnson has left behind, they’re my family members, my friends, my community.”

While Barnes had a head start on announcing his campaign, Johnson had raised almost $17.7 million to Barnes’ $7 million at the Federal Election Commission report covering until July 20. But as Barnes’ opponents dropped out of the race, funding surged for him: His campaign said on Monday that it raised $1.1 million in the previous week.

Gilkes said Barnes has done a very good job of working the grassroots so far and compared his constant campaigning since his lieutenant gubernatorial bid to Republican former Gov. Scott Walker’s bouncing between his gubernatorial, recall and presidential campaigns.

“Mandela is a little bit different situation, but he’s been kind of in that same mode of, he’s never stopped campaigning since he was running for lieutenant governor,” he said, adding that he thinks Barnes’ grassroots advantage in the Democratic primary field will be “muted” in the race against Johnson.

Barnes was given a boost with the pre-primary endorsement this past weekend of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, unlocking for him resources across the state, as well as the support of Forward for Wisconsin, a campaign to elect Wisconsin Democrats with over 200 staff working in over 24 offices.

“Through our coordinated campaign, Forward for Wisconsin, we will support our nominees, organize volunteers, turnout voters, and defeat Ron Johnson and whichever out-of-touch radical nominee the Wisconsin GOP nominates for Governor,” Democratic Party of Wisconsin executive director Devin Remiker said in a statement.

On Johnson’s side, the Wisconsin Victory Team, a joint field team from the Republican Party of Wisconsin and Republican National Committee that is backing candidates statewide, has contacted over a million voters and knocked on over 400,000 more doors than they had by this time in the 2018 campaigns.

Outside spending

The candidates also have outside money to count on — an amount elevated by the fact that Wisconsin’s Senate race is perhaps the most competitive nationwide.

“With families across the country counting on Wisconsinites to re-elect Senator Ron Johnson to undo the damage of Joe Biden’s reckless agenda, it’s clear Wisconsin’s Senate race has become ground zero in the battle to reclaim the majority in Washington,” Republican National Committee spokesperson Rachel Reisner said in a statement.

Two Democratic organizations, Senate Majority PAC and its nonprofit arm, Majority Forward, have reserved over $21 million in Wisconsin television airtime against Johnson so far, with more bookings to come online and on television. A liberal group backed with secretive funding, Family Friendly Action PAC, pledged another $5 million in the state.

Earlier this year, some of Johnson’s top supporters donated a combined $3.5 million to Wisconsin Truth PAC, a new super PAC created to support Johnson’s campaign. That PAC has now brought in a total of $10.1 million and spent $9.7 million in support of Johnson.

Another Republican super PAC, Senate Leadership Fund, plans to spend $15 million in Wisconsin this fall, Politico reported. Americans for Prosperity Action this year has spent about $2.85 million on Johnson’s behalf, federal campaign reports show.

Between campaigns and outside groups, Gilkes estimated funding for both sides in the Senate race could exceed $250 million and potentially more than $500 million.

Top priorities

Barnes wants to rebuild the middle class, protect abortion rights and bring more manufacturing jobs to America, but his first priority if he beats Johnson would be to pass voting reforms.

“We can’t get anything passed if we don’t protect our democracy,” he said.

Among the measures Barnes is prioritizing is one that would bolster the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a law designed to limit voting restrictions that has been whittled down by U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

But such a measure would likely only pass if Democrats both retain the majority and gain enough seats to get rid of the filibuster so Republicans can’t block the bill.

“Wisconsinites are worried about the state of our economy, skyrocketing inflation, and rising crime,” Johnson said in a statement, saying Americans are struggling to fill up their tank and buy groceries because of “Democrats’ reckless spending.”

“Crime is spiking around the state because of the soft-on-crime policies Democrats support,” Johnson continued. “I will continue to fight for common-sense policies that will rein in spending, put our economy back on track and keep our communities safe.”

Top 10 Wisconsin political stories of 2021 (based on what you, the readers, read)

2021 was another big year in Wisconsin politics. Sen. Ron Johnson said some things. Voters elected a new state superintendent. Gov. Tony Evers and Republicans clashed over mask mandates. Michael Gableman threatened to jail the mayors of Madison and Green Bay. Here are 10 political stories you, the readers, checked out in droves.

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Since the start of the outbreak, Gov. Tony Evers has issued multiple public health emergencies and a series of related orders. 

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Sen. Ron slammed the impeachment over the weekend as “vindictive and divisive,” and possibly a “diversionary operation” by Democrats to distract from security lapses at the U.S. Capitol.

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"I wouldn’t run if I don’t think I could win," said Johnson, who is undecided on a re-election bid. 

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The board had previously not required masks in schools after some in the public voiced opposition.

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With a new order announced, Republicans may be forced to start the process all over again to vote down the governor's emergency order and accompanying mask mandate, but the most likely outcome appears to be an eventual court decision.

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Fort McCoy officials acknowledge there were initial problems with food supply, but that and other issues are being addressed.

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The idea is in its infancy and all options, including declining to pursue anything, are on the table.

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Gableman has asked the court, which plans to take up the matter on Dec. 22, to compel the two mayors to meet with him.

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Deborah Kerr said she has also voted for Republicans and tells GOP audiences on the campaign trail for the officially nonpartisan race that she is a "pragmatic Democrat."

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Limbaugh died Wednesday at 70.

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