Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes has won Wisconsin’s Democratic Senate primary, NBC News projects, officially setting up a pivotal state showdown with Republican Ron Johnson in a race that could determine control of the Senate.
Barnes’ victory was all but certain after his three main competitors dropped out of the race in recent weeks. Barnes and the groups supporting him have already targeted Johnson, who also easily won his primary, with a barrage of television and digital announcements in anticipation of the November game.
Wisconsin’s Senate race will be one of the closest and most closely watched in the country, and control of the Senate could hinge on the outcome: It’s for one of two Republican seats up for grabs in states that Joe Biden will win in 2020. The race is qualified. as a launch by the Cook Nonpartisan Political Report.
A Marquette University Law School Survey from June showed a close hypothetical race between Barnes and Johnson. The poll, taken before many Democrats dropped out, showed Barnes leading Johnson 46 percent to 44 percent, within the margin of sampling error.
The same poll found that Wisconsin voters’ opinion of Johnson, a two-term incumbent, declined, with only 37 percent of registered voters having a favorable opinion of him, compared to 46 percent who had an unfavorable one
Johnson has generated controversy in recent years for a litany of false or questionable claims. He has downplayed the January 6, 2021 riot, falsely stating that “there was no violence” on the Senate side of the Capitol that day. It has also attracted criticism for promoting the use of unproven Covid therapies such as ivermectin, falsely claiming that using mouthwash can protect against the coronavirus.
Johnson, 67, who was elected to the Senate in 2010, had pledged to serve just two terms, but reversed course in January when he decided, after months of deliberation, to run for re-election.
Democrats released new ads attacking Johnson on Tuesday morning, even before the final votes for Barnes had been cast, trying to paint him as out of touch.
Barnes, 35, was quick to call himself a progressive, a move that has already drawn attacks from Republicans, who have repeated He pointed to a photo of him holding an “abolish ICE” T-shirt.
The Barnes campaign made it clear early in the primary that it did not support the move, nor did it support “defunding the police,” but Republicans are sure to keep up the attacks in the general election.
Barnes emerged last month as the prohibitive favorite in the primary after his three main competitors dropped out of the race and endorsed him.
His main challenger had been Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, who, despite pouring at least $12.3 million of his personal wealth into his campaign, never topped him in the polls. Lasry dropped out on July 27 and immediately endorsed Barnes, calling him “the best person to be able to defeat Ron Johnson.” The day before, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson dropped out of the race, and days later, state Treasurer Sara Godlewski also effectively cleared the field for Barnes, who both endorse
Barnes gained momentum this summer with a series of high-profile endorsements — from Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Cory Booker of New Jersey and others, as well as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
Barnes, who is named after Nelson Mandela, the former South African president and anti-apartheid activist, grew up in inner-city Milwaukee. He attended college at Alabama A&M, a historically black university, and worked as a community organizer before winning a seat in the state Assembly in 2012, representing part of Milwaukee’s north side.
After winning the 2018 Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, Barnes and Tony Evers unseated Gov. Scott Walker, a two-term Republican. The victory made Barnes the first black person to hold the office and only the second black person to win a statewide race in Wisconsin. He would be the first black senator to represent Wisconsin if he wins the general election.
Natasha Korecki contributed.