Johnson’s victory demonstrated that, on a night when Republicans lost a senate seat in Pennsylvania, no amount of controversy could keep Republicans in Wisconsin from closing ranks around him. It was an election of dramatic contrasts: the 67-year-old white millionaire and proud Donald Trump backer, pitted against the 35-year-old Black politician from Milwaukee who counted Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren among his supporters. Johnson had trafficked in COVID conspiracy theories, promoted false claims of fraud over the 2020 presidential election, and called for Social Security and Medicare to be subject to the annual whims of Congress, but he survived by running a disciplined, ferocious campaign that lashed Barnes for inflation and elevated crime, portraying the Democrat as too radical for Wisconsin.
The general election was incredibly bitter and racially charged. Johnson repeatedly blasted Barnes for being a past supporter of the “defund the police” movement — Barnes denied, despite available evidence, that he was — and even claimed that the Democrat hated America. “Why would some of our fellow citizens elect somebody who does not like this country, doesn’t like Wisconsinites, and surely doesn’t like law enforcement?” Johnson asked in October. Barnes accused Johnson of being “not just a danger to this state” but a “threat to the stability of this country.” Ultimately, Barnes had to contend with challenging midterm headwinds that battered Democrats just about everywhere. In a midterm year like this one, flipping a Wisconsin Senate seat was always going to be difficult. Still, national Democrats threw everything they had into the campaign. Barack Obama headlined a rally in the final days for Barnes, vying to become Wisconsin’s first Black senator, and for Tony Evers, the Democratic governor who comfortably won after a tight contest of his own.
Battling Johnson in a purple state, Barnes strained to portray himself as a centrist. At times, it was an awkward fit. The Working Families Party–backed Democrat, who once held an “Abolish ICE” T-shirt and rose to power in 2018 with the aid of social-justice activists, refused, four years later, to label himself a progressive. He spent stretches of the campaign avoiding local reporters, seemingly fearful of probing questions. As the race wore on, Johnson only further leaned into his brand as a shoot-from-the-hip conservative firebrand. Barnes recalibrated, stressing an economics-first message aimed at swing voters and center-left Democrats.
Johnson’s victory is a blow for the many Wisconsin Democrats who have hoped to chase him out of office since he first defeated Russ Feingold, a liberal lion, in the tea-party wave of 2010. While Wisconsin’s other senator, Tammy Baldwin, is a proud progressive in the Feingold tradition, Johnson has unapologetically represented the state’s burgeoning GOP base. Obama carried Wisconsin twice, but Trump narrowly won the state in 2016, capitalizing on the flight of white working-class voters from the Democratic Party. (In 2020, Biden won by a razor-thin margin.) Like much of America, Wisconsin has become polarized along geographical lines with Barnes winning big in Milwaukee and Madison while Johnson dominated in the rural stretches of the state. Democrats won’t have long to lick their wounds. In two years, Wisconsin will again be at the center of the political universe, and it’s unlikely they can hold the White House if they don’t find a way to win there again.