(CN) — Wisconsin’s upcoming primary elections, in which political newcomers and establishment candidates are vying for seats in the U.S. Senate and the governor’s mansion, arrive amid Democrats facing midterm vulnerability and Republicans facing an internal identity crisis.
Nineteen months into his term, approval ratings for President Joe Biden are low, in part fueled by persistent inflation and much of his signature legislation having stalled with an unreliable 50-50 partisan split in the Senate, stoking fears of a midterm backlash against his party.
In the Badger State’s Democratic Senate primary, part of multiple open primaries on Aug. 9, the once crowded field has narrowed lately, leaving Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes as the clear favorite since contenders Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry and State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski all dropped out of the race and endorsed Barnes within five days of each other this past week.
Remaining to challenge Barnes is Steven Olikara, a 32-year-old founder of the Millennial Action Project with an anti-establishment platform who said during a recent debate that “if you’re not talking about changing the system, you’re wasting people’s time” and fired off a tweet after Godlewski dropped out of the race on July 29 calling out the “political industrial complex” for manipulating the race.
Barnes, a 35-year-old Milwaukee native, served four years in the Wisconsin State Assembly before being elected as the state’s first Black lieutenant governor in 2018, an election in which Democratic Governor Tony Evers defeated two-term Republican Governor Scott Walker and Godlewski was elected treasurer. If elected, Barnes would be Wisconsin’s first Black senator.
The son of a third-shift assembly line worker and a public school teacher, Barnes’ publicity has stressed his middle class bona fides, and middle class tax relief and pro-union, build-it-in-America agendas are central to his campaign. He is endorsed by Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and multiple union and agricultural leaders.
Barnes, similar to the other Democratic candidates, champions liberal priorities like expanding the earned income tax credit, ending the filibuster and partisan gerrymandering, passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, protecting abortion access and LGBTQ rights and building green infrastructure to tackle climate change.
But the real priority for Barnes, and Democrats at large, is besting Republican incumbent Ron Johnson, a plastics company executive first elected in 2010 during the right-wing Tea Party phenomenon. He has become a bullhorn for conspiracy theories involving Covid-19 vaccines and has cast doubt on the House of Representatives' select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, which implicated him in an attempt to hand off fake electors to then-vice president Mike Pence in Donald Trump's attempt to overturn the 2020 election results.
Anthony Chergosky, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, said “[Barnes] has quickly emerged as a talented politician who is very well liked among the Democratic Party base,” but also said that beating Johnson is “issue one, two and three for Democrats.”
Chergosky says Johnson, for whom “polarization is a feature, not a bug,” could present advantages and disadvantages for liberals. On the one hand, Chergosky says, Johnson has an intensely loyal base among the conservative grassroots, but his polarizing nature also makes him uniquely despised among Democrats, leaving both sides motivated.
A Marquette University Law School poll from June showed Barnes with a slight 46-44 edge over Johnson, and it showed him polling better than his Democratic peers with independents in a race against the incumbent. Federal Election Commission data shows Johnson has raised twice as much money as Barnes in 2022 and has more than three times as much campaign cash on hand.