Mandela Barnes, Wisconsin’s 34-year-old lieutenant governor, wants voters to know he’s the progressive candidate in the field of the 10 Democrats running in the state’s 2022 Senate primary.

Barnes a leading contender for the race and a rising star within the party, has often spoken out about his support of Medicare For All, the Green New Deal , and making wealthy corporations and individuals pay their fair share. He has traveled around the globe promoting action on climate change. Progressive groups like Democracy for America, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and the Working Families Party all endorsed his candidacy within hours of its existence. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., one of the Senate’s most prominent progressives, endorsed Barnes this week.

“When it comes to progressive credibility, of course, I have more progressive credibility than any person running,” Barnes, who would be the state’s first Black senator, told NBC News in a recent interview.

” “I have always been a leader with a vision for opportunity and being able offer opportunity to everyone in this state must be seen through a progressive prism, as we’ve come so far backwards in the past eight years,” he stated.

Some observers believe Barnes is attempting to be progressive by claiming he is. A firmly progressive Democrat in Wisconsin, a purple state, could hurt the party’s appeal to suburban and working-class voters that the party needs to win a statewide election.

The stakes for Democrats could not be higher. Senate control could hinge on the race to unseat Ron Johnson, the state’s Republican incumbent, or another GOP candidate, should Johnson decide not to run. The Wisconsin race, one of just two Republican-held seats up for grabs in a state Biden won in 2020, is rated as a toss-up by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

“Ideally, the Democrats would probably find someone in the center in order to draw as many independents in a 50-50 state as possible in what’s bound to be a tough year,” said a Wisconsin-based Democratic strategist who is not affiliated with any of the candidates’ campaigns. Mandela is not the front-runner because he is progressive. It’s not because he is popular with the base. It’s because he has a long record in the state. “

But, strategists see Barnes as having unique and strong positives. Wisconsin voters tend to split their ticket and vote for candidates they like. This has been a pattern in recent years. In 2018, for example, Wisconsin voters re-elected Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, the first LGBTQ person elected to the Senate and one of the chamber’s most liberal members, by nearly 11 percentage points, while also voting conservative Republican Gov. Scott Walker out by just one percentage point, meaning a large chunk (experts say approximately 12 percent) of the electorate cast a ballot for both.

Midterm election hinges on turnout. However, Barnes’ progressive reputation could be a benefit as the party seeks out to motivate voters.

“Winning will be about energy, activism, and grassroots. Progressive candidates are better at this than candidates in the middle of the party,” stated Joe Zepecki, who is a Milwaukee-based Democratic strategist and is not aligned with any candidate.

‘A true believer’

Barnes’ early elevation is the product of a compelling biography, home state roots and statewide political experience, politics watchers told NBC News.

Barnes was born in Milwaukee’s inner city and went to college at Alabama A&M (a historically Black university).

He worked as a community organizer before winning a seat in the Wisconsin Assembly in 2012, representing part of the north side of Milwaukee. After winning the 2018 Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, he and now-Gov. Walker was defeated by Tony Evers, a two-term Republican. This victory made Barnes the first Black person in Wisconsin to hold the office. It also made him the only Black person to win a state race.

Benjamin Barnes, as lieutenant governor has unabashedly allied himself with the progressive wing the Democratic Party.

“Mandela runs as who he really is,” Zepecki stated. He is a true believer. “

Polling, both internal and external, show Barnes with a strong lead in an unwieldy field.

A bet on being progressive

Barnes has made an early bet that a progressive vision will emerge victorious, even though the most obvious takeaways from 2020 and 2021, so far, have been that centrist-branded Democrats are the ones winning general elections, strategists and politics-watchers said.

“Wisconsin is on the razor’s edge and the margin of victory tends to be decided by a very small number of swing voters, who have recently, mostly been relatively centrist voters in the suburbs, so I’m not sure his formula is the right one,” said Charlie Sykes, a former conservative talk radio host in Wisconsin and the editor-in-chief of The Bulwark.

Sykes, along with others, pointed out not only Biden’s win last year but also recent wins by centrist Democrats over progressive candidate in primaries in different areas of the U.S. In New York City, centrist mayoral candidate Eric Adams won over several popular progressives. In Ohio, congressional candidate Shontel Brown touted her loyalty to Biden to best former Bernie Sanders campaign co-chair Nina Turner.

Republicans have been quick to identify Barnes as the likely front-runner — and even quicker to attack him for his progressive positions.

“Barnes has been deemed too liberal to represent Wisconsinites, and he is aware of it,” Lizzie Litzow, spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee said in a statement. She also stated that Wisconsin Democrats are “flying over themselves to prove who’s liberal.” “

“Mandela Barnes is the way to keep that seat Republican,” said Sykes. “The Republicans I’ve talked to would much rather run against Mandela Barnes.”

Barnes would be wise to shape his campaign after that of his boss, said Charles Franklin, a political science professor at Marquette University.

“He was always focused on education, pre-existing conditions, and roads,” Franklin said about Evers. It’s about picking issues that aren’t so ideological.”

Franklin said of Evers, “He focused constantly on education and pre-existing conditions and roads.” It’s about picking issues that aren’t so ideological.”

Strategists also pointed to several trends they say could help the Democratic nominee in the state, regardless of how progressive he or she is, including a win in April 2020 by liberal state Supreme Court candidate Jill Karofsky over a conservative incumbent.

“Republicans’ track record here since 2016 is that they’ve lost 11 out of 12 statewide elections,” Zepecki noted.

Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes speaks at a rally for Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., on Aug. 29, 2020. Morry Gash / AP file

‘Less about ideology’

Barnes, however, says his recipe for running as a progressive has worked for him so far, pointing to his winning 71 of the state’s 72 counties in the 2018 race.

” I am the candidate who can clearly articulate the vision of a better quality of life. To be honest, it’s less about ideology,” he stated.

Barnes and experts who have been following his campaign said that Wisconsin voters are known for their ability to support candidates they like regardless of ideology. For example, from 2008 to 2014, voters there elected, and re-elected, Barack Obama and Scott Walker. Some Democrats believe that Barnes can win the parts of the state he needs, regardless of how many times he mentions taxing the rich or the Green New Deal.

“In Wisconsin, in particular, authenticity matters to voters more than platform,” said Robyn Vining, a state representative for a suburban Milwaukee district. “I don’t believe running to the centre helps us win. And we need voters to be excited, we need people who will turn out even if it’s raining sideways.”

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