Mandela Barnes, a far-left Wisconsin Senate candidate bankrolled by anti-police groups, easily clinched the state’s Democratic nomination on Tuesday, after a friendly primary that effectively ended two weeks ago when his main competitor dropped out and endorsed him.
But the smooth sailing is about to end as he enters the general election against incumbent Republican senator Ron Johnson, and the Republican Party homes in on Barnes’s history as a progressive firebrand.
During the primary, Barnes’s opponents avoided attacks on his political record, including his criticism of law enforcement, far-left economic policies, and personal issues such as his tax delinquency. He also attempted to distance himself from some of the more radical policies on the left, telling the Washington Free Beacon that he doesn’t support the “defund the police” movement—even as he raked in his largest donations from Lead the Way 2022, the Working Families Party, and other anti-law-enforcement organizations.
But Johnson will almost certainly highlight Barnes’s controversial policy positions during the general election, according to Republican strategists.
“There weren’t many elbows thrown in that primary,” said Mark Graul, a Wisconsin Republican strategist. “[These issues are] going to come out over the next few months.”
Keith Gilkes, a Wisconsin Republican political consultant, predicted that Barnes will have a “very difficult time appealing statewide coming from that Democratic progressive liberal viewpoint with the voters around the state of Wisconsin outside of Dane and Milwaukee county,” the bluest areas in the state.
Barnes, who was born in Milwaukee in 1986, worked as a community organizer for Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope before entering politics in 2012. He spearheaded a campaign that railed against “mass incarceration” in Wisconsin, and sought to reduce the state’s prison population by half through early release and treatment programs.
Later that year, Barnes was elected to the state assembly in a deep-blue district in Milwaukee, after ousting Democratic incumbent Jason Fields in the primary. Barnes, with backing from the state teachers’ union, argued that Fields was too conservative and campaigned against the incumbent’s support for school vouchers.
As a state legislator, Barnes backed criminal justice reform policies and sponsored a 2016 bill to abolish cash bail in the state, a position his campaign says he still supports. The bill would require Wisconsin judges to “release a defendant before trial” rather than setting monetary bail, unless the court found clear evidence that the individual would “cause serious bodily harm to a member of the community.” Prosecutors would also be prohibited from using “the nature, number, and gravity” of the charges to argue against release.
Bail reform has been a contentious issue in Wisconsin, where six people were killed and dozens injured last year at a Christmas parade in Waukesha by a repeat felon who had been released on low bail shortly before the attack.
Barnes has also taken far-left stances on economic and environmental issues. As lieutenant governor, he led a commission on climate change that proposed divesting state pension funds from fossil fuels, instituting a carbon tax, and requiring schools to teach a racially focused climate justice curriculum.
“He’s much further left than most Wisconsinites are … and I think people are going to learn that over the course of the next three months,” said Graul.
Barnes’s personal record could also be an obstacle. He has been delinquent on property taxes, and blew up at a reporter who asked about the late payments in 2019, claiming that the “check is in the mail.” He was barred from registering his car due to outstanding parking tickets in 2018, and relied on state police to chauffeur him around.
He also misrepresented his college background, claiming he received a journalism degree from Alabama A&M University in 2008. After journalists questioned this claim in 2019, he admitted that he did not graduate due to “a small technical thing” involving his failure to turn in completed coursework.
Republicans are likely to highlight Barnes’s history of controversial statements as well. He once described the U.S. founding as “awful,” citing the legacy of slavery, and was photographed holding a t-shirt reading “Abolish ICE”—a reference to the radical movement to defund Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Barnes’s viability as a general election candidate is also largely untested. His only competitive race has been a 2016 Democratic primary bid for state senate against incumbent Democrat Lena Taylor. Barnes ran to Taylor’s left, and she ended up winning the race in a blowout.
Barnes’s election as lieutenant governor was on a joint ticket with Democratic governor Tony Evers, where statewide general election voters generally pay less attention to the running mate, according to political operatives. Evers beat incumbent Republican Scott Walker in the race by one point.
“The bottom line is [Barnes has] never stood for statewide general election,” said Gilkes. “He ran in a Democratic statewide primary [for lieutenant governor in 2018], but ultimately he was under Tony Evers, which is what everybody was voting for.”