Election 2022 Wisconsin Senate (copy)

Apparent Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate Mandela Barnes participates in a July 17 debate in Milwaukee. 

When The Capital Times endorsed Mandela Barnes in the 2018 Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, we wrote:

When all of the Democratic contenders for governor addressed the state party convention in June, there was a clear standout. One candidate really did make a bigger impression than the others.

His name was Mandela Barnes.

Hold it, savvy observers of the 2018 competition will note, Barnes is not running for governor.

True enough. The 31-year-old former state legislator from Milwaukee is campaigning for lieutenant governor.

But that does not change the fact that Barnes delivered an address that was more stirring, more sharply focused on the issues, and more conscious of the messages that are most likely to win in November than the gubernatorial candidates.

While many of the Democrats who are contending for governor are prepared to do the job, they have to win it first. We wish that the front-runners in the gubernatorial race were as impressive as Barnes, especially when he outlines a progressive vision for uniting the state across lines of race, class, gender and region.

Our impression of Barnes has not changed. Indeed, it has improved. After winning the nomination for lieutenant governor — securing 68% of the vote against a better-financed rival — he played a pivotal role in boosting turnout and tipping the November election to the ticket he shared with Gov. Tony Evers. Barnes then served as an activist lieutenant governor who traveled to every county in the state, led efforts to address the climate crisis and emerged as an outspoken advocate for rural Wisconsin.

When he made the decision to seek the 2022 Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Ron Johnson, Barnes took what for him was a logical step forward. But he did not do so alone. More than a dozen Democrats considered running and eight of them qualified for the Aug. 9 primary ballot. For most of 2022, a spirited race ensued, with Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski and Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry emerging as serious contenders. Yet Barnes remained the steady frontrunner, as the other contenders came to recognize.

Nelson, a principled progressive that this newspaper has long respected, ended his under-financed candidacy last week and gave an enthusiastic endorsement to Barnes. As Nelson’s activist supporters shared Barnes’ deep commitment to labor rights, the assumption was that the vast majority of them would switch to the lieutenant governor, giving him an insurmountable lead.

Lasry and Godlewski, both well-funded candidates with significant name recognition, recognized the direction the race was headed. They folded their campaigns, endorsed Barnes and created a new dynamic where the lieutenant governor’s primary victory seems assured.

Frankly, we would have preferred that Nelson, Lasry and Godlewski had stayed in the running, since we believe that primaries are healthy and that a big win for Barnes would have done even more to prove his viability as a contender against Johnson. We also would have preferred that the Democratic Party had maintained its historic commitment to open primaries and refrained from endorsing Barnes until after the Aug. 9 vote — as several challengers remain in the race, and one of them, Steven Olikara, has made a thoughtful argument for his candidacy that is grounded in a critique of big money in politics and a broken political system.

We hope that voters will still come out and participate in their party’s primary for a number of reasons. Republicans have every reason to do so, as there are hotly contested races for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and other statewide posts. And so do Democrats. There are important statewide Democratic primaries for lieutenant governor, secretary of state and state treasurer. Democrats also have legislative and county primaries across the state. And there is still a primary for U.S. Senate, even if polling suggests that Barnes will run away with it.

In our view, Barnes has earned the nomination — not because other candidates have dropped out but because he has run a campaign that is deeply rooted in the best tradition of grassroots Wisconsin progressivism. He has run hard, traveling to every corner of the state. He has placed an emphasis on renewing the party’s fortunes in rural areas with his “Barnes to Barns” tour. And he has framed out a populist critique of politics-as-usual that suggests we need more working people and fewer millionaires — like Ron Johnson — in the U.S. Senate.

We still hold the view that we expressed when we endorsed Barnes four years ago.

“We do not often endorse in primaries,” we wrote then. “But we make exceptions for extraordinary candidates, and we believe Mandela Barnes is extraordinary. His bold progressive agenda, his energy and his ability to connect with voters across Wisconsin are needed in the campaign — and, if Democrats prevail, in state government come January.”

This fall, of course, Democrats are hoping to prevail at the state AND federal levels. With Mandela Barnes as the party’s nominee for the U.S. Senate, we believe Democratic prospects will be dramatically strengthened on Nov. 8.

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