With Wisconsin set as one of 2022’s most hotly-contested Senate races, a Barnes campaign could shatter records

MADISON, Wis. — Touting health care access, clean water and air, gun reform, and a background based in Milwaukee’s most incarcerated and impoverished zip code, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes jumped into the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate on Tuesday.

It’s a long-anticipated move, with his statewide name recognition and popularity marking him as a key frontrunner in a crowded field as Democrats push to unseat Republican Senator Ron Johnson in 2022.

“I know that we can do the work to create good jobs that are more than just a paycheck,” Barnes said in his announcement speech. “Healthcare that is accessible to everyone. We can address the climate crisis while lifting up communities from Beloit all the way to Bayfield.”

Should he be elected, Barnes–Wisconsin’s first Black lieutenant governor–would become Wisconsin’s first Black senator, and one of the youngest in the current Senate. That alone, political experts say, is enough to attract significant national attention in a state already well-accustomed to finding its internal politics play out in national headlines.

Current field

Barnes joins seven other officially-declared candidates, including state treasurer Sarah Godlewski and Bucks executive Alex Lasry.

By the numbers, Lasry could prove Barnes’ stiffest opponent: he’s been in the race longer than others like Godlewski, and pulled in serious cash–more than $2 million–in the first two quarters of 2021. In contrast, Godlewski has raised $513,000 since her mid-April announcement.

Other contenders include Outagamie County executive Tom Nelson, state senator Chris Larson, Dr. Gillian Battino from Wausau, Franklin business owner Adam Murphy, and Democratic party activist Peter Peckarsky.

Regardless of Barnes’ performance in the race, he’s forfeited his chance to be on the governor’s ticket again in 2022 since a candidate cannot be on a ballot twice in an election. (When running in off-years, public officials can lose an election but keep their current seat.)

Governor Evers issued a statement Tuesday, praising Barnes’ job performance and calling him a friend but stopping short of an endorsement. That’s par for the course in primary elections, where top elected officials avoid endorsing in a primary in order to maintain party unity.

“You want to have a unified party behind whoever the nominee would be,” political science professor David Canon at UW-Madison explained. “That is something that could end up dividing the party.”

Widely seen as a frontline player in Wisconsin’s current Democratic primary makeup, Barnes has made missteps in the past–campaign finance fines, a delayed college degree–and strategists warn he’ll have to avoid similar errors as he enters the Senate playing field.

Neither was his announcement universally supported in a race that has largely been focused on unseating Sen. Ron Johnson rather than attacks on each other, with the exception of earlier swipes at Lasry’s immense family wealth.

Within an hour of Barnes’ announcement, his own 2018 campaign manager Justin Bielinski tweeted a broadside:

Proud to be supporting the most progressive candidate in Wisconsin’s Senate race, @ChrisJLarson. Someone who recognizes it’s not about him – it’s about what he can do to change lives for the better.” (Bielinski is now campaign manager for Larson.)

One of three closely-watched Senate races nationwide

Two open races in Pennsylvania and North Carolina coupled with Wisconsin’s seat form three of Democratic top targets in 2022 as Democrats battle to maintain a slim hold on house control while Republicans struggle to break the 50-50 tie.

One of those three races will replace Rep. Pat Toomey (R) in Pennsylvania, retiring in a state President Joe Biden flipped blue in 2020. Now, their own Democratic lieutenant governor John Fetterman is the top Democratic candidate vying to replace him. He tweeted his support for Barnes last week when Barnes first opened fundraising.

https://twitter.com/JohnFetterman/status/1414584633140908033

Democrats have the edge going into 2022 because they only have 14 Senate seats to defend, while Republicans will fight to keep 20 seats, including a higher number of hotly-contested openings.

“There’s some contested races there that give Democrats a decent chance of hanging on to the senate,” Canon explained. “I think we will see a record amount of money spent in this election and a lot of national attention.”

The current fundraising record for a Wisconsin senate race was set in 2016 when Ron Johnson beat out former longtime senator Russ Feingold (D) to hang on to his seat he first won from Feingold in 2010. In that race, both candidates raised a combined $44.8 million, with outside spenders dumping another $29.6 million in largely ad-spending into the race.

Republicans wait for a decision

All eyes are on Sen. Johnson, who previously promised not to seek a third term but who is also sitting on $1.7 million in campaign cash as he mulls another run.

Media reports based on interviews with sources in the party and close to Sen. Johnson are inconclusive on what the senator is thinking. The longer he waits, the longer other Republicans–most notably Rep. Mike Gallagher from Green Bay, who is sitting on almost $2.3 million in campaign funds–can make a public move for a possible race of their own.

“[They’re] waiting on the sidelines seeing what Ron Johnson will do,” Canon said. “That’s the other big question mark in this race.”