The Hot New Strategy for Unseating Trump Republicans: Don’t Make It About Trump

·11 min read
mandela-barnes-running-against-ron-johnson - Credit: Sara Stathas/Washington Post/Getty Images
mandela-barnes-running-against-ron-johnson - Credit: Sara Stathas/Washington Post/Getty Images

There was a time when one could often find Mandela Barnes on MSNBC. His hits peaked in late summer 2020, when Wisconsin’s 33-year-old lieutenant governor took to the liberal airwaves to register his outrage over a police shooting in Kenosha. Those appearances left a strong impression, as Barnes — young, Black, equal measures charismatic and unapologetic — condemned law enforcement’s accounts of how one of their own shot Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man. ”We’re being told not to believe our eyes,” he said on the network. “If we have the accountability we deserve … we wouldn’t be in the place that we are with this racial reckoning.”

It was an era when Democratic Senate candidates were fixtures on MSNBC, preaching soundbites to the liberal choir and hoovering up millions of dollars’ worth of donations, a reward for taking on a reviled Trump toady. Fast-forward two years, and Barnes is now a Democratic Senate candidate himself. But he’s appeared on the liberal cable network only a handful of times since declaring his candidacy. There’s a time to get the message out on the “MSNBC loudspeaker,” as he calls it, but “the focus is here on Wisconsin,” he says. “It’s important that I spend as much time as I can just talking to people here.”

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A platitude, to be sure, but at least it’s grounded in the reality of his campaign strategy to take out Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.). Instead, Barnes has turned up the dial on the quotidian, at times corny, campaign fare: Glad-handing at union halls in Oshkosh, holding roundtables about gun violence in Milwaukee, and crisscrossing the state for a (brace for cringe) “Barns for Barnes” tour to talk about hardships facing family farms.

Barnes has every opportunity to run like 2020’s highest profile Democrats: A legendarily must-win state; a high-profile, loathsome opponent; a “rising star” quality that’s long earned him comparisons to Barack Obama. But he’s rejecting that route in favor of one that typifies how his party is approaching 2022. In doing so, he hopes to avoid Democrats’ mistakes of 2020 — when the party, high on its #Resistance supply, lost winnable races, overplayed in unwinnable ones, and made everything about Trump.

Barnes doesn’t put a lot of effort into tying Johnson to former president Donald Trump (even though he’s arguably the Trumpiest senator) or belaboring his wild conspiracies (even though they’re some of the wildest uttered by a sitting lawmaker). Instead, he’s attacking Johnson the way Obama beat Mitt Romney: by saying he’s an out-of-touch plutocrat working for the wealthy against everyone else, and contrasting that with his own Milwaukee-based middle-class upbringing. (Not to say his messaging is entirely conventional: Barnes and Katie Rosenberg, the mayor of Wausau, got matching “endorsement tattoos” — designs chosen at random from the parlor’s gumball machine — and broadcast the antics on TikTok.)

Last cycle, Democratic Senate candidates failed to translate their hundreds of millions into victories, even with the wind of anti-Trump sentiment at their backs. South Carolina’s Jaime Harrison set fundraising records calling Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) a flip-flopper for hitting his fortunes to Trump…and barely performed better than a generic Democrat. Maine’s Sara Gideon failed to convince voters that Susan Collins truly had changed under Trump, and ended up leaving $15 million unspent even as Collins won by nearly nine points. Then there’s Kentucky’s Amy McGrath, the fighter pilot who catapulted her 2018 congressional loss into a 2020 Senate loss to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — while spending more than $90 million in the process.

It’s a lesson Democrats learned the hard way: Biden’s agenda wouldn’t belong to Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema if a few of its “rising star” MSNBC candidates hadn’t flamed out miserably with the voters. And if they want to flip GOP seats in 2022, they’ll need to abandon the Trump-centric playbook that failed them in 2020.

Commence the retreat from Trump’s fever swamp.

Barnes’ approach repeats itself across Democrats’ top 2022 Senate targets. John Fetterman, another tattooed lieutenant governor, has made his race against Dr. Mehmet Oz about Oz being a carpetbagger who actually lives in New Jersey — in spite of the fact that Oz is himself a reality TV star of sorts endorsed by Trump. In the race for North Carolina’s open Senate seat, Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.), the GOP nominee, voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election results and has falsely suggested electronic voting machines might have ties to liberal billionaire George Soros, one of the right’s favorite boogeymen. But Cheri Beasley, a former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, has instead framed the Trump-endorsed congressman as a pay-to-play D.C. insider in her quest for North Carolina’s open Senate seat.

National Democrats had pigeonholed Johnson long before they knew which of the dozen candidates who waded into the race would be their nominee. It began the moment Johnson announced in January that he would seek a third term, to which Democrats responded almost immediately with a TV ad. The spot made no mention of Johnson’s wild claims about climate change (caused by sunspots), the January 6th insurrection (instigated by “fake Trump supporters”), or COVID (could be treated by gargling mouthwash, a statement that drew condemnation from the manufacturer of Listerine). Instead, it highlighted Johnson’s work on a “tax break for megadonors” as it posed this question to viewers: “Has Ron Johnson been looking out himself, or for you?”

The thinking was straightforward, explains an aide at the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm: The race should be a referendum on Johnson — on his role as the chief architect of the 2017 GOP tax law, on his continued support of overturning the Affordable Care Act, on his underwater poll numbers. As to who would champion that message for the party: whoever Democratic voters wanted. Unlike past cycles, the party didn’t put a thumb on the scales for one Senate hopeful over another.

Enter Jesse Mandela Barnes, named in part for the first Black president of South Africa. The son of a schoolteacher and a union steelworker, Barnes had a middle-class upbringing in one of the poorest zip codes in Wisconsin. He went south for college to Alabama A & M, a historically Black university, then came back home to spend his early 20s as a community organizer for an interfaith organization focused on decreasing Wisconsin’s prison population. He served two terms in the Wisconsin state assembly and lost a state senate run in 2016 before joining and winning the gubernatorial ticket with Gov. Tony Evers in 2018.

The lieutenant governorship, a role light on governing but heavy on messaging, has allowed Barnes to serve as an energetic sidekick to his low-key, septuagenarian state executive. He’s been a staunch advocate for addressing climate change and was an early proponent of the Green New Deal. He’s also supported Medicare for All as a reasonable way to get to universal health care. He’s been vehement in his demands for police reform, especially in the wake of the Kenosha shootings, suggesting at some points that money from budgets be reallocated for other community support services. He’s earned the support of progressive stalwarts like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well as high-profile, more moderate, Black Democrats such as Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).

“He’s not a placeholder of a candidate,” says Rosenberg, the mayor of Wausau (and Barnes’ tattoo twin). “People like his ideas and his energy.”

But both those ideas and energy felt hard to find when Barnes and I spoke this week. He talked about police reform as a matter of “public safety” — “about keeping people safe and finding common ground” — and applauded the bipartisan efforts to address police reform in the state. He spoke of his liberal bona fides as “transcending labels or any specific group,” he says, striking a balance between “find[ing] the people where they are” while also leading on issues “that have been important to me since before I ever considered running for office.” He promised to work with anyone and everyone “who wants to work with me to make life better for the people of Wisconsin” in response to a question about his past support of Squad member Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). When I pressed him to confirm that, in fact, included Omar, he replied “If Ilhan Omar, if a Republican [wants to work with me]…people are suffering right now.”

It all sounded rather subdued for someone who once mocked his GOP predecessor’s false claim that he once knelt during a playing of the national anthem by quoting Rihanna lyrics. (That predecessor, Rebecca Kleefisch, is now a GOP gubernatorial candidate hoping to unseat Evers.)

Consider it a symptom of a paradox that plagues Democrats who entered the national spotlight during the Trump presidency, an era when the party’s big tent rewarded unchecked political passion and liberal stances that, under more sober circumstances, would have been considered third rails. The strategy Barnes and his party have charted may ultimately be what’s required for candidates like Barnes to win, but could diminish the qualities that made them appealing in the first place. Rosenberg laments, for example, that Barnes isn’t as “aggressive on social media as he has been in the past,” she says. “I appreciated that he wasn’t afraid to clap back sometimes.”

Indeed, Barnes hasn’t escaped backlash from activists who insist he’s dimming his light. Voces de la Frontera, a Latino civic engagement organization, has withheld an endorsement of Barnes over his recent comments rejecting President Biden’s decision to end Title 42 immigration authority, which granted the administration more freedom to deport undocumented immigrants during the pandemic. “Mandela is someone who has been a strong champion for immigration reform,” says Christine Neumann-Ortiz, Voce’s executive director. “However, we disagree with the strategy he has taken now to basically follow national strategists who are clearly dictating that, to win in Wisconsin, you have to align with this far-right policy on asylum.”

Other strategists commend Barnes for the way he’s embracing his middle-class roots without rejecting his liberal positions — even if the latter is earning him GOP attacks. “It’s a really smart strategy,” says Joe Zepecki, a Wisconsin Democratic strategist who stayed neutral through the primary. “If you tune out what everyone else outside Wisconsin is saying about Barnes, he’s running as a middle-class first, ‘focused on Wisconsin issues’ Democrat.” He compares it to that of Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), one of the Senate’s most liberal Democrats and the first openly gay person elected to the chamber, who made her first run a referendum on American manufacturing.

Angela Lang, the executive director of BLOC, a Milwaukee-based Black civic engagement organization, says Barnes has done a good job addressing her group’s top priorities — reforming the 1994 crime bill, for example — while being a relatable candidate to its members. “Being able to say he grew up on the same side of town as they did, his mom is a teacher, his dad is a union member — people want to see a candidate who looks like them,” she says. But among Milwaukee’s Black voters, “the assumption that folks will walk to the polls because Mandela’s making history is not enough,” cautions David Bowen, a Democratic state representative from Milwaukee. He hopes the campaign’s messaging is paired withreal grassroots connections” with Black voters in neighborhoods like he ones he represents.

As for the attacks on Barnes for being too liberal to win, it’s a racist “dog whistle,” Lang adds. “The idea that his views are ‘radical’ feels coded.” Wisconsin Democrats also say there’s something more important at play than ideology, one that goes back to Barnes’ similarities to Fetterman: Vibes. Both are looking to transcend the familiar ideological tug-of-war with their “track records of residual goodwill,” built up through years in the statewide spotlight, Zepecki explains. Barnes tells me as much: “We’re building something that is transcending the labels or any specific group,” he says.

That may not involve gobsmacking fundraising hauls or a national platform on the #Resistance stage, but it may replace those financial and moral victories with something more valuable to his party: A Senate seat.

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