After a Senate Loss in Wisconsin, Democrats Turn on Each Other
Kara Voght – November 13, 2022
In the weeks leading up to Election Day, Mandela Barnes’ supporters felt frustrated. They believed in Barnes as the best Democrat to take on Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), and election forecasts all but guaranteed a Johnson victory. That frustration gave way to fury, however, once the ballots were counted on Wednesday. Barnes lost to Johnson by a single point.
It was a performance far stronger than what former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) achieved in his back-to-back runs against Johnson in 2010 and 2016. It also shouldn’t have been a shock. “This was a result that tracks with what our model suggested might happen,” says Ben Wikler, the chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. He’d spent the last few weeks explaining, both publicly and privately, that the race was tied — even as credible public polls found Barnes uncomfortably behind.
The unexpectedly sunny outcomes for Democrats on Tuesday night mostly staved off party soul searching — with one notable exception: The U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin. It wasn’t as if Democrats couldn’t win statewide there. Gov. Tony Evers won his reelection on Tuesday by more than 90,000 votes. The Senate race, meanwhile, had been the Democrats’ top target in 2022 as polls consistently deemed Johnson unpopular among Wisconsin voters. His reported efforts to help overturn Wisconsin’s 2020 presidential election results only made his ousting more desirable.
Barnes’ near miss has reopened intraparty wounds as Democrats lament the Senate seat that got away. At the root of it is a perennial question that follows high-profile losses: Was the candidate the wrong choice, or did he have insufficient resources to make his case? Barnes’ progressive allies point fingers at the Democratic establishment, whom they blame for discouraging big money from stepping in to counter tens of millions in attack ads unleashed upon Barnes after the primary. Democratic operatives, meanwhile, blame the Barnes campaign for not doing enough to counter those attacks with his own messaging — and for not putting enough distance between himself and past progressive positions they believe are toxic to Democrats running in tight races.
Barnes had been the early favorite to take on Johnson. The 35-year-old Black lieutenant governor had been a Democratic rising star ever since he’d won a Milwaukee-area seat in the Wisconsin legislature at age 25. He shared the winning gubernatorial ticket with Gov. Evers in 2018, a victory that boosted his visibility statewide. Barnes didn’t fit squarely in any ideological frame; both progressive stalwarts like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and moderate Black leaders like Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) claimed Barnes as their own. It was a seemingly winning quality he shared with Pennsylvania’s John Fetterman, another Democratic lieutenant governor trying to flip a U.S. Senate seat. (”Just two tall bald dudes trying to get the job done,” Barnes told Politico of their very online bromance in July.)
He and Fetterman also shared a vulnerability: Liberal sensibilities to criminal justice reform. Barnes became the face of the Evers administration during the Kenosha riots that followed the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in August 2020. He made frequent cable news appearances to demand police accountability. At one point, he suggested diverting funding from “over-bloated budgets in police departments” to community programs. The sentiment seemed to align Barnes with the goals of “defund the police,” the left-wing rallying cry that had grown radioactive in Democratic circles. Barnes had also been photographed holding an “Abolish ICE” T-shirt, another liberal slogan the GOP insisted on weaponizing.
Barnes tailored his campaign to neutralizing those attacks. He introduced himself as a candidate with a middle-class upbringing and a pocketbook-oriented platform. When asked about his criminal justice positions, Barnes would say he supported investing in both crime-prevention measures and law enforcement in equal measure. The strategy worked for the Democratic primary: He cleared a crowded field before any votes were cast as challengers, seeing Barnes as the clear frontrunner, dropped out and threw their support behind him.
The view from Washington, however, hadn’t been so convinced of Barnes’ obvious ascent. The Senate Democrats’ campaign arm had seen multiple candidates as strong contenders to challenge Johnson, declining to put its thumb on the scales for any candidate during the race. In the months leading up to the primary, a number of influential Democrats had privately raised doubts over Barnes’ electability — including Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), according to several sources with knowledge of conversations. (“That’s ridiculous,” says a Schumer spokesperson, who noted that Schumer transferred $1 million from his own campaign coffers to Barnes’ efforts. “Sen. Schumer worked tirelessly to ensure Mandela Barnes and other Democratic candidates across the country had the resources they needed to run strong and competitive campaigns.”)
Then, just two weeks after the primary, the predictable happened. Four Johnson-aligned super PACs blanketed Wisconsin airwaves with ten different ads tying rising crime rates to Barnes. The spots preyed on the trauma of the Kenosha riots as well as a violent scene in Waukesha, where a man killed five attendees at the city’s annual Christmas parade as drove his car in November 2021. Nearly $25 million was spent in TV, radio, and digital advertising against Barnes during that period — including more than $10 million from Wisconsin Truth, a super PAC founded by three billionaire Johnson backers.
Barnes led Johnson by seven points in the first Marquette University poll taken after the primary, a time when a third of the Wisconsin electorate still hadn’t formed any opinion of Barnes. By the beginning of October, the Marquette poll found that Johnson had pulled ahead of Barnes by six points. “They were able to make Mandela look like a scary black man,” says Angela Lang, the executive director of BLOC, a Milwaukee-based Black civic engagement organization. The crime-ridden messaging had even penetrated among the city’s older Black voters, according to Lang. As BLOC’s organizers went door-to-door, they’d sometimes be asked: “Is Mandela really trying to let all these violent criminals out?”
“If the GOP smears had been met with equal intensity, I don’t think the country would have lost track of the fact that he really did have the chance,” Wikler, the Wisconsin Democratic chair, says. But Democrats disagree on what meeting those smears should have looked like. To Barnes’ progressive allies, the major Democratic party organs didn’t hit back hard enough during the GOP’s August and September blitz. They blame the lack of pushback on doubts prominent democrats raised over Barnes’ electability, saying it discouraged key donors from investing in the race. That attitude, according to Barnes’ boosters, delivered his campaign a fatal blow at a key moment. “That window was such a critical window — Mandela was ascendant,” says Maurice Mitchell, the executive director of the progressive Working Families Party, which backed Barnes in the race.
Indeed, the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm had, by that point, viewed Fetterman’s race for Pennsylvania’s open seat as a safer bet and decided to focus its resources on winning that race. Even so, Democrats had thrown $11.6 million behind opposing Johnson in those post-primary weeks — including $3 million from the DSCC in airtime “with the hopes that our nominee would use the air cover during this period to get their own advertising plans in order,” says a DSCC spokesperson. But Democrats defending those efforts point out that no amount of anti-Johnson spending would be as effective as hearing from Barnes himself. Research from the Center for American Progress, shared with Democratic campaigns in September, had found that the most effective strategies for combating crime attacks came from the candidates deflecting allegations themselves. Democratic Senate strategists had relayed these finds to the Barnes campaign and encouraged him to be prepared to face attacks on his record.
The Barnes campaign, attuned to this, stayed on the air throughout August and September with a series of ads that featured Barnes refuting GOP claims. One from late August opened with Barnes in his kitchen in the midst of the quotidian tasks of putting away groceries. “Now they’re claiming I’m going to defund the police and abolish ICE,” Barnes said directly to camera. “That’s a lie.” It still wasn’t enough to counter the Republican onslaught with so many GOP attacks going unanswered; the Barnes campaign, still rebuilding its fundraising coffers from the primary, couldn’t match the spending. “We knew people needed to hear directly from him — ‘This is nonsense, this is what I believe,’” says Barnes campaign manager Kory Kozlowski. “The thing you can’t control is three of their ads for one of yours.”
Still, other Democrats point out that the attacks would have lost their sting if the candidate hadn’t held controversial positions in the first place. Matt Bennett, a cofounder of Third Way, a centrist Democratic political organization that supported Barnes in the general election, admits money was a huge factor — as was race, especially given the 120,000-vote delta between Barnes and Evers. “But it also can be true that Barnes did not effectively put distance between himself and his positions,” Bennett adds. Other Democrats point out that Barnes never walked away from his support of ending cash bail, a vulnerability Republicans successfully linked to the Waukesha tragedy, which had been perpetrated by a freed felon. “Proof points like that become really hard to overcome,” says Navin Nayak, the president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. “That’s where good policy can bump up against scare tactics.”
But the Barnes campaign did find a potent strategy to crawl back into contention. Much of that was premised on hammering Johnson over his anti-abortion stances, a charge the Barnes campaign learned performed best against Johnson’s crime accusations. The Barnes campaign outraised Johnson in the final stretch and achieved a spending parity — and, at times, an advantage — as it got its own attack ads up in early October. Education among voters, too, softened the attack lines. “Naming the racism was important,” BLOC’s Lang says. “He’s talking about getting rid of cash bail, but that doesn’t actually keep our community safe.”
Barnes’ poll numbers steadily climbed each week leading up to the election. “One more week and we would have won,” Kozlowski, Barnes’ campaign manager, laments.
Johnson’s victory has no bearing on Democrats retaining their Senate majority. The caucus will, however, fall short of the 52 senators they needed to kill the filibuster — perhaps just one short if Sen. Rapahel Warnock (D-Ga.) wins a December runoff election.