early and often

The Mandela Effect

To beat Ron Johnson and save the Senate, Wisconsin’s Democratic hopeful tries to rebrand himself.

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

This article was featured in One Great Story, New York’s reading recommendation newsletter. Sign up here to get it nightly.

It was at a virtual town hall in late 2021, with COVID-19 rates skyrocketing again in Wisconsin, where Ron Johnson made the mouthwash declaration. A longtime vaccine skeptic, the Republican senator had curious advice for anyone battling the disease. “By the way, standard gargle mouthwash has been proven to kill the coronavirus,” he said. “If you get it, you may reduce viral replication. Why not try all these things?”

It immediately made national headlines and provoked the sort of clucking and horror that usually accompanies any kind of fringe remark from a Republican these days, especially one aligned with Donald Trump. This guy is a United States senator? Really?

Indeed, Johnson is. Democrats are hoping the steady drumbeat of controversy around him — his bizarre efforts to help Trump steal the election, his insistence that the scientific consensus around climate change is “bullshit” — can drive him from office after two terms. For more than a decade, he has eluded Democrats in a state that twice sent the union-busting Scott Walker to the governor’s mansion and is now, perhaps, the most polarized place in America.

The man leading the charge to unseat Johnson this year is the polar opposite of the millionaire Boomer conservative: Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, a 35-year-old Black former community organizer. “It’s a contest between two wildly different candidates,” says Barry Burden, the director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “They’re different from one another in almost every dimension.”

Barnes has had a rapid rise to power from his birthplace in Milwaukee. The son of a public-school teacher and United Auto Workers member, he graduated from public schools and attended, but did not initially graduate from, Alabama A&M University. (In 2020, he received his diploma.) “My story is the Wisconsin story,” he told me in a recent phone interview. “I bring to this race a real working-class experience.”

Working in the office of Mayor Tom Barrett, Barnes became a local organizer, and a decade ago, at just 25, he unseated a Democratic incumbent in the state assembly. He attempted and lost a bid for state senate in 2016. Two years later, he launched his comeback, running for lieutenant governor with a coalition that included Mark Pocan, the Wisconsin congressman who was then-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and the left-wing Working Families Party. He won the primary in a landslide and teamed up with educator Tony Evers running for governor. Evers and Barnes, riding a wave of national anti-Trump backlash and long-running dissatisfaction with Walker, the right-wing Republican governor, won a narrow victory.

Like John Fetterman in Pennsylvania, Barnes emerged from the progressive wing of his party but today — unlike earlier in his career — he no longer calls himself a progressive in an attempt to appear less polarizing. Running hard on an economic message focused on a revival of local manufacturing and safeguarding small farmers, he is consciously attempting to increase his crossover appeal in a state that is more than 80 percent white and politically purple. The wind, so far, seems to be at his back. He has consistently polled ahead of Johnson, with one recent Marquette University Law School poll showing him ahead by a stunning seven points. Johnson has leaned far harder into Trumpian cultural grievances than any kind of economic populism; unlike Trump, he has floated the idea of ending Social Security and Medicare as federal entitlement programs and subjecting them to the annual whims of Congress, which could potentially blast apart the widely popular social safety-net programs. Even rank-and-file Republican voters want the government to keep funding both indefinitely.

Johnson is probably the most endangered Republican senator this year: He is the one running for reelection in a state Joe Biden carried in 2020, and picking him off would virtually assure Democrats hold or expand their control of the Senate. The party may be feeling giddy about that proposition, though there are plenty of reasons to believe actually getting the job done will be far harder than it looks. He has run ahead of polling deficits before, beating Russ Feingold in 2016 (for the second time) after trailing the veteran Democratic senator for much of the campaign. Barnes is lashing Johnson for being an out-of-touch millionaire more interested in pandering to wealthy elites than the Wisconsin dairy farmer. “I will represent the people Ron Johnson has turned his back on consistently,” Barnes says. “He wants to ship Wisconsin jobs out of state, overseas.” But it’s not as if Johnson hasn’t heard it all before. Plus, he is still heavily outraising and outspending Barnes, unlike other Republicans who have struggled to keep up with a new wave of online donations to Democrats.

All sides agree that there is a shrinking number of voters who can be persuaded from one camp into the other. The polls are expected to narrow in the fall, as Johnson consolidates his Republican base. Barnes, who has won endorsements from Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well as Jim Clyburn and Cory Booker, will dominate with Democrats. After Trump carried Wisconsin by fewer than 23,000 votes in 2016, becoming the first Republican to win the state since Ronald Reagan in 1984, Biden won by an even narrower margin four years later. Geographically, Wisconsin is a microcosm of America, with rural white counties swinging hard to the GOP while Milwaukee and Madison, with sizable populations of Black and college-educated voters, remain Democratic strongholds. Republicans have a stranglehold on the state legislature, which has been gerrymandered to create unbreakable Republican majorities. In recent years, Wisconsin incubated Walker’s strident anti-unionism, and there was a time when he was talked about as a leading Republican presidential contender. Wisconsin is also the state that gave birth to “Fighting Bob” La Follette and the American socialist movement. Bernie Sanders, in 2016, found success there.

In addition to stumping aggressively in rural areas of the state, Barnes’s strategy is to boost Black-voter turnout in Milwaukee, which has lagged since Barack Obama left office. He’ll have to navigate perilous racial currents that linger in Wisconsin, including the fallout from the Jacob Blake shooting. In debates over Barnes’s electability — inevitably, his race is brought up — Obama is the ultimate rejoinder, a biracial, cosmopolitan center-left Democrat who twice won Wisconsin, capturing some of the white voters who have cast ballots for Trump since. No one like Barnes has run competitively for Senate in Wisconsin, but no one like Obama was ever elected president before he won. Precedents are shattered plenty. Allies gush over Barnes’s outreach and personal touch. “He understands having to make ends meet with food stamps,” said Mitch Reynolds, the Democratic mayor of La Crosse. “He understands farmers having to slaughter cattle because they can’t afford to feed them this year.”

Barnes has honed in on an economics-first message that he hopes will appeal to voters who have left the Democratic Party. He wants to combat monopolies in the agricultural industry and has called for expansions of the Earned Income Tax Credit and the since-scuttled Child Tax Credit. He has termed these with some savvy, middle-class tax cuts. “He’s really emphasizing running a working-class campaign. We haven’t always seen Democrats run that way in Wisconsin,” says Dan Shafer, a Milwaukee-based journalist who writes a newsletter on Wisconsin politics. “He’s a fairly mainstream Democrat who maybe leans a little to the left on certain issues, ones that speak to his age and race and generation.”

That lean is where the Johnson and Barnes campaigns are at war with each other — and even, to a much lesser extent, with the media. Barnes is a WFP Democrat and after a career rising in the Democratic Party as a member of its left flank, he is attempting something of a rebrand. He doesn’t tout a friendly visit with Ilhan Omar or talk up the Warren and Sanders endorsements much. He’s not eager to speak about the time when he was running for lieutenant governor and held up an “Abolish ICE” T-shirt, a policy he says he now rejects. Once a supporter of shifting police resources to social-services agencies — a core tenet of the “Defund” movement — he nevertheless affirms his support for increasing police funding as Republicans attack him for becoming intertwined with the 2020 George Floyd protests, which featured many activists and groups who wanted to cut police funding or abolish departments entirely. “I don’t support defunding the police. I’ve been on the record a number of times. That’s another Ron Johnson lie to distract from his record,” Barnes maintains.

Barnes’s pivot toward the center — and away from any particular branding — is probably wise from the standpoint of trying to win over a divided Wisconsin electorate. It has also made his campaign much more protective of him; unscripted moments are increasingly avoided altogether. Local reporters have publicly lamented that Barnes refuses to answer their questions at campaign events. He has a habit of foisting questions onto his staff, even when directly asked in person.

Barnes was slated to speak with me for ten minutes during our phone interview. An aide abruptly cut the call off after eight minutes, just as I was about to ask a question about what national health-care reform he currently supports. The aide insisted he had to run to another event. I said I wanted to ask my question. She said she would pass along information about Barnes’s position. The call was over. (On Tuesday, a spokesperson offered an additional five minutes with Barnes.) As of now, on his website, Barnes has a video running just under two minutes that criticizes Johnson for wanting to repeal Obamacare and affirms his own support for Medicare for All, as well as lowering the Medicare age of eligibility to 50 and capping insulin costs at $35.

The video was helpful. It also wasn’t Barnes, in his own words on a telephone call with a reporter, explaining in greater detail how he’d reform health care if elected. Many of his answers in the relatively brief interview (“I am focused on my own race, my own state, the things we have in common.” “It’s not about labels. We are fighting for those working people denied a fair shot.”) were rote and milquetoast, as if engineered in a consultant’s lab to offend as few people as possible and repel Republican attacks.

And those attacks are coming regardless of what Barnes says. “Mandela Barnes is a radical socialist who wants to fundamentally transform America,” said Alec Zimmerman, a spokesman for the Johnson campaign. “He’s led groups that want to defund the police, he’s supported the Green New Deal, and he’s pushed for massive tax increases that would hurt Wisconsin families. He’s a far-left extremist who is totally unfit to serve the people of Wisconsin, and voters will see just how out of touch he is in the next few months.”

Republican strategists have a playbook they are confident will still work, even if a growing number of voters is incensed over the national loss of abortion rights. They plan to hammer Barnes, as well as Evers and other Democrats running, on rising crime in the state and persistently high levels of inflation. Immigration, red meat for the GOP base, will likely come into play. And they hope, whenever possible, to gin up the battles over “critical race theory” that helped propel Republican Glenn Youngkin in Virginia to victory last year.

“Wisconsin does have a history of sending progressive liberals to D.C., but those liberals always found issues that appeal to rural voters. Mandela Barnes is working really hard to make appeals to rural voters,” says Keith Gilkes, a Republican consultant who once served as Walker’s chief of staff. “I question whether that will fall on deaf ears. Everything from Defund the Police to Abolish ICE to a number of different positions he’s taking — all those weigh on voters in the midterms.”

Traditionally, Barnes would be at a sharp disadvantage, with an unpopular Democratic president and a Republican backlash brewing. Johnson, having won in both a tea-party midterm and a Trump upset year, can’t be underestimated, even as national Democrats roll their eyes at his antics. Johnson is more deft politician than he appears at first glance — he is no Dr. Oz. At the same time, the downfall of Roe has scrambled the calculus nationwide. Barnes has a formidable statewide coalition, a tailored message, and plenty of energy. The only promise, two months out, is that this election, Wisconsin-style, will be brutally close.

Can Mandela Barnes Pivot His Way to Beating Ron Johnson?