“There were weeks where we would get outspent 2-to-1 on TV,” Barnes said in an interview. “There has been an unprecedented amount of negative spin against me.”
It has been an abrupt turnaround for Barnes since late summer, when he won the Democratic primary by acclimation and opened up a lead in polls over Johnson, who has long had the lowest approval ratings of any incumbent senator on the ballot this year. But the hail of attack ads from Johnson and allied super political action committees has tanked Barnes’ standing, particularly among the state’s finicky independent voters.
Republicans have seized in particular on Barnes’ past progressive stances, including his suggestion in a 2020 television interview that funding be diverted from “overbloated budgets in police departments” to social services — a key element of the movement to defund the police. Since then, Barnes has disavowed defunding the police and has called for an increase in funding.
Race has also been at the center of the televised assault on Barnes, who is Black. Mail advertising from Republicans has darkened Barnes’ skin, while some TV ads from a Republican super PAC have superimposed his name next to images of crime scenes.
Those overtones come as no surprise to Wisconsin Democrats. He is only the third Black statewide official in Wisconsin’s history; the first two both lost reelection in campaigns widely regarded as racist. And Democratic strategists and voters are well aware that fighting back aggressively has its dangers.
“It’s real easy to go from ‘fired up for change’ to ‘the angry Black guy from Milwaukee’ in the public perception,” said Alexia Sabor, the Democratic Party chair in Dane County, which includes Madison.
For all of the Republican optimism, Barnes still has a path to victory. Wisconsin elections over the past two decades have been very close, with Donald Trump and Joe Biden each winning the deeply polarized state by fewer than 25,000 votes in their successful presidential campaigns. And Wisconsin Democrats have a record of winning tight races: Including nonpartisan state Supreme Court elections, the party has won 9 of the 10 statewide elections since 2018. Johnson is also less popular in the state now than he was when he won narrow victories in 2010 and 2016.
“I have not met somebody who’s like, ‘Oh, gee, how should I vote in the Senate race?’” said Mayor Katie Rosenberg of Wausau, a longtime friend and political supporter of Barnes. “I mean, mostly people know.”
Barnes entered the primary as a favorite of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. When he first ran for office, in 2012, he wrote on Twitter that progressive candidates who moved to the political center were “compromising all integrity.” In 2019, he delivered the Working Families Party’s response to Trump’s State of the Union address.
Barnes, 35, a former state legislator who was elected lieutenant governor in 2018, consistently led in the primary polls. Two weeks before the primary, his leading rivals dropped out and endorsed him one by one, saying they hoped to give him a runway to raise money and begin attacking Johnson.
“I gave him a two-week head start,” said Tom Nelson, the Outagamie County executive, who was the first Democratic Senate candidate to end his campaign and back Barnes.
But now, Nelson said, “The campaign needs to fire its media consultant.” He added, “They’re losing.”
The Republican ads have been remarkably effective. Shortly after the Aug. 9 primary, Barnes led Johnson by 7 percentage points overall and by 15 points among independent voters, according to a poll conducted by Marquette University Law School. But 41% of voters still didn’t have an opinion about Barnes. A month later, Johnson led by 1 point overall and by 2 points among Wisconsin’s independents.
Johnson declined an interview request. In an interview with a conservative talk radio host in Milwaukee last month, Johnson accused Democrats of “playing the race card,” adding, “That’s what leftists do.”
Barnes, who announced Wednesday that he had raised $20 million during the three-month fundraising period that ended Sept. 30, has responded to Johnson with gentle advertisements in which he speaks to the camera and calmly asserts that the senator is lying about his record. In one, he is at a kitchen table making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Only on Monday did the Barnes campaign begin airing an ad criticizing Johnson’s opposition to abortion rights.
Some Democrats also worry that Barnes is not sufficiently motivating Black voters, a key constituency largely concentrated in Milwaukee. Most of the city’s leading Black elected officials endorsed other candidates during the Senate primary.
“The progressives have been Mandela’s base from the day that he was elected; it really has never been the Black community,” said Lena Taylor, a Black Democratic state senator from Milwaukee whom Barnes unsuccessfully challenged in a 2016 primary for her seat. “Because of that, he does have to do a little bit more with what other people would have seen as his natural base.”
Even Barnes’ longtime supporters are frustrated that his campaign has allowed Republicans to frame the contest as being about crime rather than Johnson’s past support for overturning the 2020 election and the misinformation he continues to spread about the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
“To call what happened on Jan. 6 an armed insurrection, I just think is not accurate,” Johnson said Tuesday during remarks to the Rotary Club of Milwaukee.
Senior Democrats in Wisconsin and Washington concluded long ago that condemning Johnson over Jan. 6 in television ads is not a winning argument with swing voters.
“To make Mandela and Black folks endure the relentless racist attacks, then not hit back on treason, corruption and lies, is unfortunate,” said Francesca Hong, a state representative from Madison who was an early supporter of Barnes.
In the interview with Barnes, held after a campaign stop at a brewery in Racine, he both reiterated his support for increasing funding for law enforcement and said he had not changed any progressive positions he took earlier in his political career.
“Things haven’t changed, right? But it’s what we talk about,” he said. “My positions are the same, and where I stand on those issues is the exact same.”
He also said he did not believe he faced extra hurdles running to represent Wisconsin as a Black Democrat from Milwaukee — the state’s largest city but one that has long punched below its weight in statewide elections. Since 1913, when the ratification of the 17th Amendment provided for the direct election of senators, Wisconsin has elected only one from Milwaukee, Herb Kohl, who served four terms.
“There’s a Black dude from Chicago whose middle name was Hussein,” Barnes said, referring to former President Barack Obama. “He won Wisconsin twice.”
Perhaps the clearest sign of Barnes’ political challenges is the lack of eagerness by some of his fellow Democrats to campaign with him.
Three hours before Barnes’ stop at the Madison diner, Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat locked in a tight reelection race of his own, held a rally on the steps of the state Capitol calling on voters to punish Republicans for refusing to consider changes to the state’s 1849 law banning abortion. Those present included the state’s attorney general, treasurer, Democratic state legislators and the state Democratic Party’s chair.
Barnes wasn’t there, and the parade of speakers barely mentioned him.
“It wasn’t that he wasn’t invited or was invited,” Evers said afterward. “He just scheduled something different at the same time to talk about the same thing.”
Johnson, for his part, appears to be in a jubilant mood. On Wednesday, he thanked the Tavern League of Wisconsin, the state’s trade association for bars, for endorsing him by posting a video in which the 67-year-old senator chugs a Miller Lite in four seconds.
© 2022 The New York Times Company
Reid J. Epstein
The New York Times