Can Senate Candidate Mandela Barnes Defeat A Rightwing, Anti-Choice Incumbent? Top Democrats Think So
Wisconsin Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes (R) will face Republican Ron Johnson if he wins the Aug. 9 Democratic primary | Source: Alli Peters, Mandela Barnes for Wisconsin

Joined by Senator Cory Booker, Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes held a meeting with Black press in Milwaukee about his campaign for the U.S. Senate. In the intimate gathering on Friday, ahead of a rally that afternoon, Booker didn’t hold back on the gravity of the race. If Barnes makes it past the state’s Aug. 9 Democratic primary, he will face rightwing Republican incumbent Ron Johnson.  

“This is probably the most important race in our nation [based] on the issues that Americans care about,” Booker began his remarks. “Whether it’s giving women access to abortions, whether it’s voting rights, whether it’s common-sense gun regulation, all the things stalled in the Senate right now that the majority of Americans agree on. It’s going to hinge on this.” 

Wisconsin is uniquely positioned as a bellwether for U.S. politics. As Booker put it, the outcome in the state’s general election can decide “whether we will continue to be on a radical retrenchment of core rights that Americans desire, or whether we will find a way forward.” 

Barnes, the party’s frontrunner, faces a deep field of competitors in the primary. He has consistently led in polls, though some candidates have narrowed his lead. “The polling shows my campaign is the only Democrat beating Ron Johnson with independent voters,” Barnes told ESSENCE. “It shows my campaign is the strongest against Ron Johnson.” 

Johnson has recently made headlines after reports that his chief of staff attempted to submit a slate of electors that falsely claimed Donald Trump won the electoral vote in Wisconsin and Michigan, a tactic some Republicans used across the country to prepare to overturn the 2020 election.  

Renowned members of Congress have recognized the urgency of this race, with support for Barnes ranging from Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Jim Clyburn and Bernie Sanders, who endorsed the candidate on Monday.  

In a fundraiser with Barnes in May, Warren told the Milwaukee crowd “I believe in Mandela, and I believe in what he can do for our country. It’s going to be hard, taking on a primary and then taking on a man that the Republicans will [do] everything they can to prop him up.”  

“It’s going to be a hard fight,” Warren acknowledged. “But Mandela understands one thing down deep: you don’t get what you don’t fight for.” 

Barnes is only the second Black elected official to win a statewide office in Wisconsin. If he wins in November, he could become the state’s first Black senator

Though the stakes are high, questions remain about voter turnout. In 2016, turnout among both Black and white voters plunged, helping Trump turn the state red for the first time in decades. With the country on edge and after days of tallying votes, Biden narrowly eked out a win in 2020 with just over 20,000 votes.  

Barnes’ campaign insists that there has been positive feedback on the ground leading up to the primary. 

“We have been at the doors more than any campaign,” Barnes said. “Our volunteer base is more broad than any other campaign this primary. That demonstrates the ability to be able to do it in November, because we’re doing it now.”