Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes has officially announced his bid for the U.S. Senate, in the race to turn Republican Ron Johnson’s seat blue.
Barnes confirmed his candidacy after months of speculation that he would be vying for the seat. He plans to make a formal announcement Tuesday in front of Sherman Phoenix, an entrepreneurial hub for Black-owned businesses in his hometown of Milwaukee.
“Let’s be unabashedly unafraid to work together to change the game,” Barnes said in his announcement video, emphasizing job creation, health care costs, public education and family farms. “Hard work isn’t paying off like it used to.”
He joins an already jam-packed Democratic primary. Democratic candidates include state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski; Alex Lasry, a Milwaukee Bucks executive and son of the team’s owner; Tom Nelson, a county executive and former state lawmaker from Appleton; and state Sen. Chris Larson.
Barnes, 34, has a reputation in the state for being an ambitious and eager up-and-comer. He was first elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly at age 25. After just two terms, he gave up his seat in an attempt to oust one of the state Senate’s most prominent Democrats, Lena Taylor, and lost badly. Two years later, he came back with a successful bid for lieutenant governor, becoming the first Black lawmaker to serve in the post, and the second Black politician to ever serve statewide in Wisconsin.
His success has earned him connections in high places. He was considered for a White House post in the Biden administration, has close ties to those in former president Barack Obama’s orbit, and has developed a buddy routine with Gov. Tony Evers, as the younger, more outgoing sidekick.
And despite being one of the later entrants in the Senate race, being lieutenant governor — a public facing role without much actual executive authority — has had its advantages.
For months, in his capacity as Evers’ No. 2, he’s been traveling the state on a listening tour about the impacts of COVID-19, selling the benefits of the American Rescue Plan and the governor’s agenda. His Senate campaign is beginning with much of the same message: a message about increasing opportunities for Wisconsinites.
Still, his record in public office, like that of many Democrats in the state, has been in the minority or shadowed by a Republican-controlled state legislature.
And the race is crowded. Godlewski, who served as Hillary Clinton’s director of women’s outreach for Wisconsin and has been campaigning across the state since mid-April, has won a major endorsement from EMILY’s List, which backs Democratic pro-choice female candidates.
Both Godlewski and Lasry have a lot of personal wealth to tap into for what will undoubtedly be a hard-fought primary. Godlewski loaned herself $290,000 in her race for treasurer in 2018.
Lasry, in addition to being the son of billionaire hedge fund manager and Bucks owner Marc Lasry, raised $1 million in the last three-month period, double what Godlewski raised since jumping into the race in mid-April. The Lasry family were major fundraisers for both Obama and Biden.
Johnson raised $1.2 million in the second quarter of 2021. Johnson was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 2010 and has not said whether he will seek a third term.
In recent months alone, Johnson has explicitly rejected the scientific consensus on COVID-19, spread misinformation about the vaccine, and showed sympathy toward the Jan. 6 Capitol rioters. He said he wouldn’t get the vaccine because he already recovered from the disease in October, warned against mass vaccinations and baselessly implied that the vaccine is not safe to receive.
In May, Johnson told Fox News that “by and large” the attack on the U.S. Capitol was a “peaceful protest” after previously saying he never felt threatened by the violent rioters.
The Senate race in Wisconsin will be one of the country’s most watched next year and no doubt one of the most expensive. It’s one of the few real opportunities Democrats have to expand their razor-thin majority in the Senate.
Voters elected Democrats statewide in 2018; the state flipped for Joe Biden in 2020 after helping deliver Donald Trump the presidency in 2016. But Biden’s win was so narrow, Barnes isn’t convinced it will translate easily into a Democratic victory this time around.
After the November 2020 election, Barnes told HuffPost that he wished Democrats fought for even bolder ideas like “Medicare for All,” showed up more in rural areas, and built more trust among communities of color.
That said, Johnson, who has only sidled closer to Trump since the election, has become an easy target for Democratic groups. This week, Democracy For All 2021 Action, a coalition of more than 20 prominent progressive groups and unions, released an ad targeting Johnson for his comments about the Jan. 6 riots.