Wisconsin’s Rising Democratic Star Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes Is Scared

Tara Golshan
·Reporter, HuffPost
·16 min read
Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes says Democrats have a lot of work to do after winning Wisconsin by such a close margin in 2020. (Photo: AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes says Democrats have a lot of work to do after winning Wisconsin by such a close margin in 2020. (Photo: AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Joe Biden won Wisconsin. That is a big deal. Donald Trump won it in 2016, and it was high on the list of states Democrats knew they needed to fight for in 2020.

But Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes thinks his party should be careful not to get too excited about the win.

“So, obviously, [I’m] very happy that we won. You know, we did a lot of work to make that happen,” Barnes told HuffPost in an interview. “The only thing is, I was thinking that margin was going to be a little bit wider, to be completely honest.”

President-elect Biden won Wisconsin by a little more than 20,000 votes — a smaller margin than Trump won the state by in 2016. The Wisconsin Elections Commission approved the Trump campaign’s request to recount the votes in Dane and Milwaukee counties — the two biggest Democratic strongholds in the state — as Trump continues to deny his decisive loss, now more than two weeks after Election Day. It’s extremely unlikely the recount will reverse Biden’s win in the state.

Barnes is a 33-year-old rising star in the state party. As Wisconsin’s first Black lieutenant governor, he’s frequently mentioned as a potential challenger against Sen. Ron Johnson (R) in 2022, a race that could make or break Democrats’ hopes of gaining full control of government. And he’s critical of Democrats’ performance this cycle.

Democrats should have fought for even bolder ideas like “Medicare for All,” showed up more in rural areas, and built more trust among communities of color, Barnes said.

Voter turnout in Milwaukee was stagnant in 2020 compared to 2016, when Hillary Clinton lost Wisconsin in large part due to low voter turnout in cities. More concerning for Democrats, turnout in predominantly Black neighborhoods actually decreased this cycle, according to early unofficial results. Biden made up ground in the suburbs. Meanwhile, Trump consolidated the vote in rural districts. Republicans maintained control of the state Legislature, despite Democrats picking up two suburban Assembly seats.

Voters masked against the coronavirus line up to vote at Riverside High School in Milwaukee. (Photo: AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Voters masked against the coronavirus line up to vote at Riverside High School in Milwaukee. (Photo: AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Barnes pointed to Trump receiving 10 million more votes than he received in 2016 as a warning sign for Democrats.

“A lot of people sat on the fence because they thought he may be racist. And then he started doing a whole bunch of racist stuff in office, and all of a sudden he got 10 million more votes. And that’s a scary thing for me,” Barnes said. “It’s a scary thing for a lot of people and a scary thing for democracy as well. Every policy that was a failure and we assumed would be the downfall of him, he just got stronger.”

Here is HuffPost’s conversation with Barnes.

I saw you tweeting on election night and saying that there was a lot more work to be done. And to start this off, I wanted to get a sense of what that work is?

Yeah, so obviously [I’m] very happy that we won. You know, we did a lot of work to make that happen. The only thing is, I was thinking that margin was going to be a little bit wider, to be completely honest.

From 2016 to last week, I think we got about just over 300,000 [more] votes. Donald Trump got over 200,000 more votes. I think about me spending basically the last four years almost mocking Donald Trump that he got 5,000, 6,000 fewer votes than Mitt Romney. Like, everybody heard me say it apparently. And they showed up. And so looking at the vote share, across the country, Donald Trump gets 10 million more votes than he got in 2016. It’s like, you know, a lot of people sat on the fence because they thought he may be racist. And then he started doing a whole bunch of racist stuff in office, and all of a sudden he got 10 million more votes. And that’s a scary thing for me. It’s a scary thing for a lot of people and a scary thing for democracy as well. Every policy that was a failure and we assumed would be the downfall of him, he just got stronger.

I don’t want to confuse people, because taking on and defeating an incumbent president is a very difficult task, and so the fact that we got it done is still remarkable. But what it says in terms of how many votes he was able to get, that is something that troubles me.

A lot of people sat on the fence because they thought he may be racist. And then he started doing a whole bunch of racist stuff in office, and all of a sudden he got 10 million more votes. And that’s a scary thing for me. It’s a scary thing for a lot of people and a scary thing for democracy as well. Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (D)

In 2012, Barack Obama didn’t get the number of votes he got in 2008. And we have to really look at ourselves as a party and think about our outreach, not just in communities of color but also in rural areas. We have to show up, and not just provide an alternative to the Republicans, just showing up basically saying the same things and hoping they’ll vote for us.

There was a lot more outreach and investment in Milwaukee and particularly in Black and Latino communities in Milwaukee this cycle than in 2016. How do you explain that turnout was either stagnant or down in those communities this time still?

So a couple of things. One is voter suppression. Another thing, there was a very targeted effort by Republicans and the Republican Party to suppress votes rhetorically ... to convince Black people to not vote for Democrats — and not necessarily to vote for them, but to get them to stay home.

I got some really wild literature. There was real effort to just keep people from showing up to vote and convince them it wasn’t worth showing up for Democrats. And part of that too is the [Democratic Party] having not built the most solid reputation over — and this is not just the last few years — this is over time. The party has worked to rebuild and repair relationships in Black communities over the last couple of years. We’re talking about decades of growing apathy.

There seemed to be a completely rehauled campaign style to do outreach and advertising this cycle.

If all those efforts weren’t made, we wouldn’t have the outcome that we did have.

Well, so tell me why. Why do you think the Republican vote consolidated so much in rural areas?

I’ll say that [Republicans] play a lot of blame games. They say that big cities and the people that live in the cities that are taking everything that should be yours. That’s their message. That is a feeling even some Democrats have in rural areas, because you haven’t had a coherent response to that.

I think our message has to be very clear. This is happening to all of us. Doesn’t matter where you live. As Democrats typically preach the message of unity anyway. And I think that is an area for us to double down and hammer home that message, especially when it comes to issues of inequality. It’s the same forces that keep families down in the city of Milwaukee are the same forces that have people struggling [in rural areas].

Supporters wait for President Donald Trump to speak at an Oct. 30 campaign rally at the Austin Straubel Airport in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo: AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Supporters wait for President Donald Trump to speak at an Oct. 30 campaign rally at the Austin Straubel Airport in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo: AP Photo/Morry Gash)

I did also then want to ask about down-ballot. With all of the fundraising from the Wisconsin Democratic Party, with all of that infrastructure in place, having Democrats in the governor’s office, how are Democrats supposed to make inroads down the ballot?

That’s a good question and it’s a tough one. Because gerrymandering is a form of voter suppression. Just because these maps are poorly drawn doesn’t mean we shouldn’t put any effort into the districts, because we still have to make sure that the candidates that are running have a chance to communicate their messages effectively. And we have to make sure that they have the resources to run an effective campaign to get the message across in areas when we need to get that across.

Even when you look at the districts this year compared to two years ago, or four years ago, there’s a lot of movement. We won two seats in the suburbs of Milwaukee this year in the State Assembly, and they were completely out of reach four years ago. They were in striking distance two years ago, but this go-around we took them. And I think there are even more that we potentially could have had, but there was that Trump turnout.

What messaging isn’t happening? I understand what you’re saying that these districts aren’t unreachable, the tide is slowly changing, but you have these huge elections where the stakes are really high — the census is this year. So what wasn’t happening?

We still got a lot of data that’s coming in that we need to look at. And I won’t say that it necessarily wasn’t happening.

I think we can be bolder in our messaging — across the country too. A lot of these incumbents that came up short wanted to moderate their stances, and I’m not saying you’ve got to be out there with a bullhorn or, even quasi-socialist — stick to the things that matter.

Love HuffPost? Become a founding member of HuffPost Plus today.

Folks who don’t want to deal with issues of racial injustice, they want to separate themselves from what they feel is a radical movement on the left. ... If you are moving in the direction that your Republican opponent is already in, who’s going to take you seriously? Mandela Barnes

Be bold on the bread-and-butter issues. Katie Porter [the Democratic congresswoman from California] flipped a seat in 2018. And she came back 2020 without a problem because people knew who she was and people knew that she was going to fight for them, even if they disagreed with her on certain policy stances. Because if the choice comes down to a Republican incumbent or a Democrat that is going to possibly share some of the positions or policy stances that Republican incumbents share, then they’re going to vote for who they’re comfortable with. They’re going to vote for ― and especially rural parts of the state ― they’re going for the person who goes to their church, they’re going to vote for the person they tend to agree with more on social issues.

What is being bold on bread-and-butter issues like health care, and what is not?

It shouldn’t be taboo to say that you think everybody has health insurance and, you know, we’ll figure out the path to get there. Some people would say that “Medicare for All” is the way to go. Maybe that is true. And if there is an alternative, let’s hear it, but a lot of people want to shut down the conversation immediately. A lot of people want to run from an issue like that and leave the conversation there. If you’re going to run from it, then run to something. Run to something that is going to give people better than what they are getting now. All of these things.

And even on environmental issues. Like, I get it, why people may run from issues like a Green New Deal, because it would need to be different in every part of the country. Every state does not have the same opportunities to implement those sorts of reforms. But the fact is that the environment is in crisis and we are in a jobs crisis that is going to be made much worse in the coming year if we don’t do something about it.

Folks who don’t want to deal with issues of racial injustice, they want to separate themselves from what they feel is a radical movement on the left, that’s fine if you want to separate yourself from it, but what are you moving towards? Like, if you feel like, well, I’m getting beat up about this, I gotta move away from this issue. Well, if you are moving in the direction that your Republican opponent is already in, who’s going to take you seriously?

You seem to be referring to the current fight happening among Democrats nationally in the House, where some members have said, don’t say “defund the police,” don’t run a Green New Deal, don’t say Medicare for All.

That is a frustrating fight, because for all the talk about stepping away from these issues I’ve talked about, well, what do you want to talk about? What should be talked about? What should be communicated to your voters? What should be communicated to your constituents if you are an incumbent? That’s why I have a problem. We can disagree on issues, but I think that we should absolutely have a debate.

OK, so you are talking about that fight. What do you think about the issues people ran on in this election cycle? Is running on a public option bold enough to get people’s attention?

Yeah, I guess I kind of drifted into that fight.

I think a public option is obviously far better than where we are now. And there are people who feel like the public option, could be enough — and it could be enough for some people. I think that was the biggest mistake in 2009, and Joe Lieberman [then an independent senator from Connecticut] gets the blame for that.

But people obviously want more. People want to fight for more. I think that people would want to fight for “Medicare for All,” or as close to a universal health care system as possible, and if you ended up with a public option, I don’t feel like people would see that as the end of the world knowing that that takes us much farther than where we are now. A public option is a gateway drug, to use a failed analogy of a gateway drug. But, in many ways a public option is the step.

People want to fight for more. I think that people would want to fight for ‘Medicare for All,’ or as close to a universal health care system as possible. Mandela Barnes

So you’ve come out of this election thinking the margins were tighter because Democrats didn’t go big enough?

Yes. Because the stances we took this election as a party were stronger than the stances we took four years ago and our vote share increased by 12 million. I think that if we keep moving forward, we stand a chance to grow even larger. Now is definitely not the time to turn back. And I feel like if we get into these fights and we end up going to a place where less bold is the path, then I think we kiss those votes goodbye. Look, people are hurting right now.

You know, this is one of the most difficult times in American history. And the Republican Party isn’t shy about what they want to do. They’re not shy about missing the reality of the climate crisis. They’re not shy about completely ignoring the issue of racial injustice. And what did that do? It got them 10 million new votes.

This election proves that people are locked in. People are locked in for Trump. And we thought that we could peel them away. The growth that he had, that proves the point that they’re there. They’re engaged.

Then how does that square with you saying that you can go into these rural districts and make inroads down the ballot?

I don’t feel that way. Rural communities, just like urban communities just want someone who will stand up and someone who will be there for them and recognize the biggest challenges that they are facing.

So do you see them locked in or not locked in? That’s what I’m trying to clarify.

I think that, I think there’s room for us to grow. Like there’s still people who show up to vote. There are a lot of people locked in. Not everybody is solidly locked in, but the new growth that they have, some of that could have been ours. But I do think that there are still opportunities for us to increase our vote share. And in every part of a part of the state, every part of America. It is completely possible for us to get back to an Obama margin. I 100% believe that.

Joe Biden supporters in Milwaukee react to the announcement on Nov. 7 that Biden defeated Trump in the presidential election. (Photo: AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Joe Biden supporters in Milwaukee react to the announcement on Nov. 7 that Biden defeated Trump in the presidential election. (Photo: AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Democrats raised around $35 million more than Republicans in Wisconsin. Do you think the party should think differently about how it spends money?

There’s always things you can do differently, right.

I want to hear those things.

I would say that if we did not spend the money, if we didn’t raise the money, there’s a very real chance we wouldn’t have won by that narrow margin.

So what is the path to returning to Obama margins then, specifically?

Oof.

Other than having Obama on the ticket.

Yeah, no, no, no. I’m just refreshing the lungs. That’s all.

Obviously, Hillary Clinton being uniquely unpopular had a big impact. Biden being popular had a big impact. All of that stuff matters, but other than that―

All of that does matter. Other than that, I feel like in 2008, I feel like the party knew who we were. I don’t think there was this identity crisis. I think there was this idea that as a nation, that we could move forward from the disaster of the eight years of the George W. Bush presidency. And there was a way that we could do it together. People were inspired, and you can’t take that part away from politics. There’s the policy part of it. There’s the financing of elections, but there’s also that deep, personal connection that exists and that cannot be understated.

And Democrats don’t have that anymore?

I won’t say we don’t have that any more. People do like Joe a whole lot. He won the primary handily after raising very little money and with no real infrastructure.

We can’t expect another Barack Obama to show up. That’s a once-in-a-generation, if not a lifetime, sort of candidate. But I will say that we still have to make those personal connections.

What do you mean by like Democrats knew who they were in 2008 compared to now?

I wasn’t as mature in politics in 2008. But I don’t get that sense that there was a whole lot of what seemed to be irreconcilable differences. I won’t say we’re fractured, but we’re definitely factioned.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.