Mandela Barnes builds a winning coalition, consolidating support in a wild ending to Wisconsin’s Senate primary
Alex Lasry, Sarah Godlewski and Tom Nelson each dropped out of the race to back Mandela Barnes before the primary. Recombobulating on a strange ending to a strange primary.
The Recombobulation Area is a six-time Milwaukee Press Club award-winning weekly opinion column and online publication written and published by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
For months, the race in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate was a fairly quiet one. But then, in a flurry of activity last week, the race completely changed.
To recap: On Monday, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson dropped out of the race. On Wednesday, Alex Lasry did the same. On Friday, State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski followed suit, with all three endorsing the frontrunner, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes. It was a stunning turn of events, and with 10 days to go before the primary, the race was settled. Mandela Barnes is going to be the Democratic nominee to take on Sen. Ron Johnson in the general election this fall.
That quiet primary campaign sure escalated quickly. Just about two weeks ago, at the primary’s now-only televised debate, it was notable how little candidates were criticizing each other, instead focusing their ire on Johnson. Rarely did they get above the level of “Wisconsin nice” in criticisms of their fellow Democrats.
Speaking with reporters after the debate, State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski said, “In this race, what it comes down to is we should be focused on Ron Johnson, not on each other."
Throughout the campaign, there hadn’t even been many policy fissures between the candidates. They’ve all been generally aligned on top issues – fighting inflation, codifying Roe, enacting common sense gun reform, expanding access to health care, raising the minimum wage, reviving the Child Tax Credit, combating climate change, supporting pro-union, “Made in America” policies, expanding voting rights, getting rid of the filibuster to get all of this done, and so on.
There seemed to be a shared understanding of the unique stakes of the Wisconsin Senate race – and of the caricature of a far-right Senator they’d be going up against in the fall – among each of the top candidates. And while Barnes might lean more to the left than some other Wisconsin Democrats, to their credit, neither Lasry nor Godlewski turned this race into another retread round of the tired “Left vs. Center” debate.
Perhaps then the events of last week were less of a tectonic shift in the race and more of an acknowledgement of a reality that’s been there for quite some time.
Barnes has always been the favorite to win this race. He started as the frontrunner, built a broad coalition, and delivered a strong campaign. He was on his way to a clear victory – possibly even with an outright majority and not merely a plurality – before the other candidates began dropping out. Asking sources about the primary, even as Lasry was surging, people would say it was still “Barnes’ race to lose.” He didn’t lose.
In the end, Nelson, Lasry and Godlewski each chose to unite behind Barnes rather than spend the final stretch battling increasingly long odds to try to defeat him. Part of this is a recognition of where the race was heading where, based on the latest polling, Barnes was starting to pull away from the pack as undecided voters began to break. But another part of this is the recognition of the larger stakes of the looming general election race against Ron Johnson and the need to be united against Wisconsin’s senior Senator, who, at the moment, is the favorite among forecasters to win re-election (as most Republicans in toss-up states are in this midterm year).
The biggest domino to fall last week was Alex Lasry. His decision to leave the race is ultimately what upended the whole primary. He had solidified himself as the second-place candidate, and in the June poll from Marquette University Law School, he was at 21% and Barnes was at 25% – with more than 30% of voters still undecided. He was in range.
But some insiders had been wondering if Lasry had hit his ceiling. From the April Marquette poll to June, his level of support saw just a modest increase, and his head-to-head polling against Johnson was slightly behind the other candidates. He outspent the entire field in the second quarter of 2022, had been running television ads since October 2021, and had clearly solidified his position ahead of Godlewski and Nelson. But he was just not catching Barnes.
That was all but confirmed in a poll made public the day before Lasry dropped out. The poll showed Barnes with a 14-point lead over Lasry, and a 27-point lead over Godlewski. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel also reported that multiple polls taken the week prior showed Lasry behind Barnes by double-digit margins. Mandela had all the momentum.
One of the things I'd been hearing in conversations with sources about the primary was that Lasry would not go negative in his campaign in the final weeks of the race.
Lasry’s decision to end his campaign had to have been a difficult one, given that he was the top challenger to the frontrunner, but it was perhaps a smart calculation given the bigger picture stakes. If the most important thing in this race is indeed to defeat Ron Johnson, it doesn't help that larger goal to go negative against the likely winner in the final stretch.
Now, with the nomination essentially clinched for Barnes, he and Democrats can use these days before the partisan primary to present a united front against Johnson instead of turning on one another. Just take a look at what’s happening with the gubernatorial primary across the aisle to see what Democrats – already combatting the typical midterm disadvantage – might want to avoid in this race.
It would be preferable, of course, for voters to have made this decision. But this is a primary, not a general election. You’re choosing a nominee, not electing someone to office. There’s a big difference.
Over the next few months, there will be no shortage of opportunities to further examine Barnes’ candidacy and his quest to become Wisconsin’s first Black senator. As focus shifts to this fall’s general election, this is a race that will surely attract a great deal of national attention, and there are many valid questions that will be worth asking.
But first let’s not overlook Barnes’ remarkable ability to consolidate support in this race. He gained endorsements from national figures from Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders to Rep. James Clyburn to former Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman to Sen. Cory Booker. He lapped the field in local level endorsements, who come from a wide range of backgrounds. He is demonstrating that he can build a broad coalition.
That’s the word that comes up most often when you talk to Barnes supporters – coalition.
This burgeoning coalition will be tested, no doubt, but this is how the big tent of the Democratic Party in a swing state like Wisconsin can and should build lasting political might – by forming a real coalition to compete for the long haul. The goal for Democrats can’t just be to topple the “villain” candidate in each election cycle – Walker in ‘18, Trump in ‘20, Johnson in ‘22 – they have to be building a long-term political movement to achieve sustained success. Perhaps activating a broader coalition that includes progressive and moderates and everyone in between can do just that.
To be sure, the endgame of this primary campaign has been a rather strange one. But this has been kind of a strange race, overall. This has not been a typical group of candidates in a Senate primary. There were no members of the House running to move to Congress’ upper chamber, and no longtime state legislative leaders or big city mayors vying to unseat Wisconsin’s senior Senator. These candidates might not have had the type of traditional political experience you might expect in a race for U.S. Senate. But, especially among the top three, it was a young and energetic field with each campaigning to bring a fresh approach to the job of Senator. And of that group, Mandela Barnes proved to be the best candidate.
The bottom line, after all of the upheaval in this race over the past week, is this: The Democratic Party unifying in this moment is a very good thing. This alignment is going to be to their advantage. This full embrace of Barnes is going to improve his chances to win an upset victory over Ron Johnson this fall.
We’ll find out in about 100 days if Mandela Barnes can make history in Wisconsin. Buckle up.
ICYMI: The Recombobulation Area’s Dan Shafer joined Opportunity Wisconsin and Heartland Signal for a live panel discussion on “The State of Health Care” in Wisconsin. The panel also featured Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin.
Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The Daily Beast, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s won 13 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.