Democrats beat the odds and retained control of the U.S. Senate in a midterm election cycle that, we had been told, would produce a Republican “red wave.” That’s not just good news for Democrats. That’s good news for responsible Republicans who hope that the bitter reality of defeat might finally awaken their party from the fever dream of Trumpism and edge it back toward the American mainstream.
Unfortunately, the pattern of Democratic successes in battleground states across the country did not extend to Wisconsin. One of the most feverish of all the Republicans running — sputtering conspiracy theorist and self-dealing millionaire Ron Johnson — won a third term as the state’s senior senator.
Johnson won ugly. With the generous support of the billionaire campaign donors who are his favored constituents, Johnson and his backers flooded the airwaves with television and radio ads that were overtly racist and xenophobic. Every bit as crude as anything we’ve seen from former President Donald Trump and right-wing zealots such as U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the ads from the Johnson camp smeared his Democratic challenger, Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes.
Johnson and his supporters claimed Barnes, the first Black candidate of a major party for the U.S. Senate in Wisconsin, was “dangerous” and “different.” The Republican senator sought to portray Barnes — who worked in some of the state’s most hard-pressed communities to combat poverty and inequality before being elected to the Legislature and then to the state’s second-highest office — as a shiftless character who had never accomplished anything of consequence.
The entire Johnson campaign was based on character assassination and lies. But when you’re willing to take the low road, and when you’ve got billionaires such as Richard Uihlein and Diane Hendricks who are willing to pave the low road with their gold, it’s possible to get pretty far. Even to a third term in the Senate.
The good news is that Johnson’s dreams of using a Senate committee chairmanship to launch pointless investigations into President Joe Biden’s agenda, and to promote fantasies about stolen elections and using mouthwash to fight COVID-19, have been dashed.
He will serve in a Republican minority that failed to prevail in a midterm election where everything was supposed to be running in the GOP's favor. Indeed, if Georgia voters reelect Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock in a December runoff, as we hope they will, the Republican minority will be even smaller than before the midterms.
Good. Anything that marginalizes Ron Johnson benefits the country and Wisconsin. After all, Johnson has said that he won’t lift a finger at the federal level to promote job-creating investments in Wisconsin — even when those jobs could be in his adopted hometown of Oshkosh.
That is why, even with all his billionaire cash, and even with all the advantages of incumbency, Johnson scraped his way to reelection with a margin of barely 26,000 votes out of more than 2.6 million cast.
As the first newspaper in Wisconsin to endorse Barnes, we obviously wish he had prevailed. And we believe that he could have won if Democrats had adequately funded the Barnes campaign in late August and September when the Republican attack ads were using all those lies to define the Democrat in the eyes of the electorate.
Of course, the Barnes campaign and its allies made mistakes. They didn’t go after Johnson as aggressively as they should have in the early stages of the race. And they let too many of the incumbent’s lies go unanswered.
That allowed Johnson to open a lead in the polls by mid-October. Many national pundits wrote Barnes off as a Democrat who could not win in an election that was supposed to be a slam dunk for the GOP. But Barnes never gave up. He had brilliant debate performances, and then he went into the closing days of the campaign with former President Barack Obama hailing the Wisconsinite as a candidate “with humble roots, who understands the challenges folks are facing.”
That’s who Mandela Barnes was. And that’s who he is.
Barnes used his concession speech not to talk about himself but to talk about Wisconsinites — farmers, factory workers, teachers and students — who are struggling for economic, social and racial justice. He gave an extended shout-out to striking United Auto Workers in southeastern Wisconsin. “I’m in it for the auto workers in Racine who’ve been on strike for the last six months, who are still standing shoulder to shoulder to fight for fair pay, for benefits and for health care,” said Barnes. “Those folks are the reason why none of us can give up.”
An organizer in his heart and soul, Mandela Barnes made his campaign about more than electoral politics. It was a movement. And that movement is not finished.
Wisconsin’s greatest political figures — Robert M. La Follette, Bill Proxmire, Gaylord Nelson and so many others — suffered defeats. But they always understood those defeats as bumps on the road to victory. So will Mandela Barnes. He will be back. He will win next time — not for himself, but for a progressive vision of what this state and this nation can be.
“We didn’t get over the finish line this time,” Barnes explained last Wednesday. “But I know this movement that has meant so much to all of us will keep going. I still believe that better is possible, and I am in this for Wisconsin. Now is not the time for us to tune out. Now is the time for us to double down. To show up like we’ve never shown up before, and make sure that Ron Johnson and every political leader knows they answer to every person in Wisconsin — not just the people who voted for them. Together, we’re going to organize for better, we’re going to fight for better, and one day soon, we’re going to achieve better.”