Why Mandela Barnes thinks his progressive ideas can win in purple Wisconsin
Mandela Barnes, the 34-year-old lieutenant governor of Wisconsin, wants voters to know he is the progressive candidate in the field of the 10 Democrats vying for the state Senate primary in 2022.
Barnes, a leading contender in the race and a rising star of the party, has often spoken of his support for Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and for corporations and the wealthy to pay their fair share. He has traveled the world to promote action on climate change. Progressive groups like Democracy for America, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and the Working Families Party all approved his candidacy within hours of his existence. Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., One of the Senate’s foremost progressives, endorsed Barnes this week.
âWhen it comes to progressive credibility, of course, I have more progressive credibility than anyone who comes forward,â Barnes, who is said to be the state’s first black senator, told NBC News in a recent interview.
âI have always led with a vision of opportunity, and being able to offer an opportunity to every person in this state has to be seen through a progressive lens, because we have gone so far back in the past eight years,â said he declared. .
But by calling himself a progressive, some observers say, Barnes could get in his own way. In Wisconsin, a purple state that is one of the most divided in the United States, a staunchly progressive Democrat could hamper the party’s appeal to suburban and working-class voters the party needs to win a race. statewide.
The stakes for Democrats could not be higher. Control of the Senate could hinge on the race to topple Ron Johnson, the Republican incumbent of the state, or another GOP candidate, if Johnson decides not to run. The Wisconsin race, one of only two Republican-held seats to win in a state Biden won in 2020, is seen as a draw by the non-partisan political report Cook.
âIdeally, Democrats would likely find someone at the center in order to attract as many independents to a 50-50 state as possible in what is bound to be a tough year,â said a Wisconsin-based Democratic strategist who is not. affiliated with any of the candidates’ campaigns. âThe reason Mandela is seen as the frontrunner isn’t really because he’s progressive; it’s because he’s the highest ranking official, it’s because he’s popular with the grassroots, it’s because he has a long history in the state. “
On the other hand, some strategists see strong and unique positives for Barnes. Voters in Wisconsin have a habit of dividing their tickets and turning to candidates they just love – often, in recent years, at exactly the same time. In 2018, for example, voters in Wisconsin re-elected Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin, the first LGBTQ person elected to the Senate and one of the most liberal members of the chamber, by almost 11 percentage points, while also voting against Conservative Republican Governor Scott Walker. by a single percentage point, which means that a large portion (experts say about 12%) of the electorate voted for both.
The midterm elections are dependent on turnout, and Barnes’ progressive reputation could end up being another perk as the party seeks to motivate voters, strategists said.
âWinning is going to be a matter of energy, activism and grassroots, in which the progressive candidates have always been better than the candidates in the center of the party,â said Joe Zepecki, a Milwaukee-based Democratic strategist who is currently aligned with none of the candidates.
“A true believer”
Barnes’ early rise is the product of a compelling biography, home state roots and statewide political experience, political observers told NBC News.
Barnes, who bears his middle name in honor of the South African freedom fighter, grew up in downtown Milwaukee and attended Alabama A&M University, a historically black university.
He worked as a community organizer before winning a seat in the Wisconsin Assembly in 2012, representing part of northern Milwaukee. After winning the 2018 Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, he and now-Gov. Tony Evers toppled Walker, a two-term Republican. The victory made Barnes the first black to hold the position and only the second black to win a statewide race of Wisconsin.
As lieutenant governor, Barnes unabashedly aligned himself with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
âMandela runs like he is,â Zepecki said. “He’s a true believer.”
Polls, both internal and external, show Barnes has a solid lead in an area that is difficult to master.
A bet on progressivity
Barnes made the early bet that a progressive vision would emerge victorious, even though the most obvious lessons from 2020 and 2021, so far, have been that centrist-branded Democrats are the ones who win the general election, the officials said. strategists and political observers.
âWisconsin is on a razor’s edge and the margin of victory tends to be decided by a very small number of swing voters, who have recently been mostly relatively centrist voters in the suburbs, so I’m not sure. may his formula be the right one. said Charlie Sykes, a former conservative Wisconsin radio host and editor of The Bulwark.
Sykes and others have highlighted not only Biden’s victory last year, but also the victories of the centrist Democrats over progressive candidates in different parts of the United States in recent months. In New York City, center mayoral candidate Eric Adams won several popular progressives. In Ohio, Congresswoman Shontel Brown touted her loyalty to Biden to Bernie Sanders‘ best former campaign co-chair, Nina Turner.
Republicans quickly identified Barnes as the likely frontrunner – and even faster attacked him for his progressive stances.
“Barnes is too liberal to represent Wisconsinians and he knows it,” Republican National Senate Committee spokeswoman Lizzie Litzow said in a statement, adding that Wisconsin Democrats “were tripping over themselves to prove who is the most liberal “.
âMandela Barnes is the way to keep this Republican seat,â Sykes said. “The Republicans I’ve spoken to would much rather run against Mandela Barnes.”
Barnes would be wise to mold his campaign after his boss’s, said Charles Franklin, professor of political science at Marquette University.
âHe constantly focused on education and pre-existing conditions and roads,â Franklin said of Evers. “None of these have defined him as being clearly aligned with the progressive wing of the party, although he is clearly on the left in terms of the issues. It’s about picking out issues that are not so ideological.
The strategists also highlighted several trends that they believe could help the state’s Democratic candidate regardless of his degree of progressivism, including an April 2020 victory for liberal state Supreme Court candidate Jill Karofsky. on a conservative holder.
âThe Republicans’ record here since 2016 is that they have lost 11 of 12 statewide elections,â Zepecki noted.
Barnes, however, says his recipe for running as a progressive has worked for him so far, pointing out that he won 71 of the state’s 72 counties in the 2018 race.
âI am the candidate who can properly articulate the vision of a better quality of life. It’s less about ideology, to be honest, âhe said.
Barnes, as well as pundits watching his campaign, said Wisconsin voters have a special knack for supporting candidates they simply like, regardless of their ideology. For example, from 2008 to 2014, voters elected and re-elected there, Barack Obama and Scott Walker.
Some Democrats say this means Barnes – no matter how many times he mentions the Green New Deal or taxes the rich – can win parts of the state he would need, not only to get the nomination, but also for general elections.
âIn Wisconsin, in particular, authenticity matters more to voters than platform,â said Robyn Vining, state representative for a suburban Milwaukee district. “I don’t think running to the center helps us win. And we need voters to be excited, we need people who will show up even if it’s raining from the side.”