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MILWAUKEE—For most politicians, a stop into Sunday services is a photo-op meant to check a box, a signal that they’re a person of faith who respects the congregants whose votes can swing elections. It’s a game that faith leaders are familiar with: the politician often appears just as they have to speak at the pulpit and then ducks out of a side door.
Then there’s Mandela Barnes, the lieutenant governor of Wisconsin and the clear favorite in Tuesday’s Democratic primary to vie against Senator Ron Johnson this fall. On a recent Sunday, the 35-year-old activist-turned-player in the Democratic Party did the work inside the Amani neighborhood’s Tabernacle Community Baptist Church.
Barnes’ two-and-a-half-hour visit Sunday morning wasn’t announced to the public, and no local newspapers or television stations got any footage of him sitting on the left side of the sanctuary and sincerely communing with his faith. He sat as an observer for most of Sunday’s service until it was time to talk.
“I am no stranger. It isn’t my first. And like I tell you every time, it won’t be my last. … I know this community. I know us like no other,” Barnes said to applause before launching a careful indictment of a system that has benefited people like Johnson, the Republican incumbent who may be in one of the toughest bids for survival this cycle.
“I think about the things we go through as a society and as a community while constantly being ignored,” he continued. “We have people who have turned their backs on us and voted against pandemic relief. People who wouldn’t vote for the infrastructure bill that wants to remove lead from our communities. They couldn’t be bothered to read legislation because they just don’t get it.”
His fluency in dealing with constituents will likely pay off with Black voters. While only about 9% of voters in Wisconsin’s last midterms were Black, they fueled major wins in Milwaukee County, which is about a quarter Black and went Democratic by about 40 points. In other words, most Democrats hope to run up their tallies in Milwaukee and the progressive gem of Madison while holding Republicans’ margins to non-blowouts in the shrinking rural parts of the state.
“In this area, he will get the Black vote,” says Carl Ballard, a 71-year-old retired laborer who now serves as a deacon at Tabernacle. “If we can get the Blacks to vote—and they count every Black vote—he can get this white state.”
Barnes agrees with that argument. He also understands that this battleground state can be won only by the margins. Hence, a novel bit of punnery inside the campaign has Barnes going to rural areas on a “Barnes for Barns” tour. While he may not be able to turn these counties red, he could help Democrats prevent a bloodbath.
And while it might be unhelpful for his cause, a comparison is inevitable to another younger Black leader with plenty of ambition who believed his campaign needed to go to all communities—even those that were unlikely to support him. Barnes, like Barack Obama before him, understands Wisconsin typically votes for national Democrats and has a rich history of electing the Senate’s first openly gay woman and supporting progressive icons like Sen. Russ Feingold—and then embraces a reactionary streak that helped Gov. Scott Walker was elected to three terms in just four years.
“It’s going to be a blitz but we’re sticking to our message. We are not switching up anything,” Barnes tells TIME over iced coffee outside a Milwaukee cafe in the funky Riverwest neighborhood between his morning church visit and a coming meet-and-greet in the Historic Third Ward. By this point, he’s shed the suit and is rocking jeans and a red baseball cap with an @ symbol and a peace sign that interlocked to make a bicycle. As soon as he walked in to this liberal gathering, supporters began to approach him. He’s become something of a progressive darling, a vessel to counter the conservative resistance to President Joe Biden, including from a Supreme Court that has proven why the Senate filibuster needs changing in Barnes’ estimation. It’s a dividend he is now collecting after years of appearances at progressive policy conferences, donor retreats, and on MSNBC.
“This is a race about who will do the work for the people of Wisconsin. If the President wants to show up and join us, he’s welcome to join us,” Barnes says when asked about Biden’s political leverage in the state. “We are driving the message. We aren’t leaving it to anyone else.”
This is exactly why Mandela Barnes might be the greatest recruit for Democrats this cycle. Fresh-faced in a year voters consistently have said they want change, he is politically nimble enough to avoid splitting his Democratic Party in two, and he’s drawn high-profile pals to come join him on the trail like Sens. Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren. The drag of Biden hasn’t rendered him politically paralyzed. Because he is trained as a community organizer, Biden knows how to make a campaign move people. And in recent weeks, he managed the unthinkable—clearing the field of his primary opponents, earning their endorsements and, in one case, almost $600,000 of their remaining ad time.
This result shows that Barnes has more support from Democrats than Johnson with fellow Republicans. And among independents, it’s a statistical jump ball, according to Marquette University’s most recent polling. Barnes holds the narrowest lead in a hypothetical head to head.
However, talent and hustle are only so much. Democrats face a lot of national headwinds. Johnson has served in the Senate two terms. He has a nearly 2.5-fold fundraising advantage over Barnes. The race has been very close so far, but it could change after Barnes or Johnson finish the primaries.
It’s been tough for Democrats to land any blows that stick with Wisconsin voters—even after $6 million in outside spending going after Johnson. During a recent four-day visit, it was tough to find any evidence that Johnson’s recent proposal to end Medicare and Social Security as automatic spending programs was persuading anyone on either side. Johnson may have an oppo book the size of a Yellow Pages, but it hasn’t been able to bury him yet. Johnson seems to be benefitting from the $12 million of outside investment.
Barnes still remains optimistic and hungry. Shortly after finishing his meeting with TIME, he’s back in campaign mode, this time in a revitalized part of Milwaukee’s downtown. After finishing their cheese curds and eggs, patrons will be enjoying cajun-style haveh as well as an egg dish called “Dubbed”. Benedict Cumberbatch, Barnes’ volunteers start to show up on the sidewalks with signs urging people to attend the campaign’s next event inside a local brewery.
“We won’t change Washington until we change the people we’re sending to Washington,” Barnes says after hopping on a stage and looking out at a packed room where supporters spilled into the sidewalk cafe.
Many of those fans also include familiar faces who admire his talent. “I’ve known Mandela Barnes since he was born. I’ve known his mom before she was pregnant with him,” says 69-year-old nurse Rosemary Erkins, before joking she thought the name might have been too much. “I said to her, ‘Girl, you named him Mandela. That boy’s got to do great things for that.’ Well, we’re now looking for young people to take over because the folks in there now have blown it.”
Democrats may find the national mood toxic. Barnes may be able to overcome political gravity with long-standing relationships. After all, if 2020 showed us nothing, it was that Black voters—Black women in particular—made Biden President and shouldn’t be discounted. For those who are watching the race, the question is: What percentage of the Black community will vote? Barnes has a large stake.
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