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MILWAUKEE—For most politicians, a stop into Sunday services is a photo-op meant to check a box, a signal that they’re a person of faith who respects the congregants whose votes can swing elections. The faith leaders know the game: an in-and-out affair for the politician, who often arrives just before they are due to say a few words at the pulpit, only to duck out a side door almost immediately after.
Then there’s Mandela Barnes, the lieutenant governor of Wisconsin and the clear favorite in Tuesday’s Democratic primary to vie against Senator Ron Johnson this fall. On a recent Sunday, the 35-year-old activist-turned-player in the Democratic Party did the work inside the Amani neighborhood’s Tabernacle Community Baptist Church.
Barnes’ two-and-a-half-hour visit Sunday morning wasn’t announced to the public, and no local newspapers or television stations got any footage of him sitting on the left side of the sanctuary and sincerely communing with his faith. For most of the service, he sat there as an observer, like any other worshiper, until it was his turn to speak.
“I am no stranger. This is not my first time. And like I tell you every time, it won’t be my last. … I know this community. I know us like no other,” Barnes said to applause before launching a careful indictment of a system that has benefited people like Johnson, the Republican incumbent who may be in one of the toughest bids for survival this cycle.
“I think about the things we go through as a society and as a community while constantly being ignored,” he continued. “We have people who have turned their backs on us and voted against pandemic relief. People who wouldn’t vote for the infrastructure bill that wants to remove lead from our communities. They couldn’t be bothered to read legislation because they just don’t get it.”
This fluency with his constituents is expected to pay dividends with Black voters. While only about 9% of voters in Wisconsin’s last midterms were Black, they fueled major wins in Milwaukee County, which is about a quarter Black and went Democratic by about 40 points. In other words, most Democrats hope to run up their tallies in Milwaukee and the progressive gem of Madison while holding Republicans’ margins to non-blowouts in the shrinking rural parts of the state.
“In this area, he will get the Black vote,” says Carl Ballard, a 71-year-old retired laborer who now serves as a deacon at Tabernacle. “If we can get the Blacks to vote—and they count every Black vote—he can get this white state.”
Barnes gets that argument. But he also knows this perennial battleground state is one that is won on the margins. Hence, a novel bit of punnery inside the campaign has Barnes going to rural areas on a “Barnes for Barns” tour. He may not turn those counties red, but he can help Democrats avoid a bloodbath.
And while it might be unhelpful for his cause, a comparison is inevitable to another younger Black leader with plenty of ambition who believed his campaign needed to go to all communities—even those that were unlikely to support him. Barnes, like Barack Obama before him, understands Wisconsin typically votes for national Democrats and has a rich history of electing the Senate’s first openly gay woman and supporting progressive icons like Sen. Russ Feingold—and then embraces a reactionary streak that helped Gov. Scott Walker win three elections in four years.
“It’s going to be a blitz but we’re sticking to our message. We are not switching up anything,” Barnes tells TIME over iced coffee outside a Milwaukee cafe in the funky Riverwest neighborhood between his morning church visit and a coming meet-and-greet in the Historic Third Ward. By this point, he’s shed the suit and is rocking jeans and a red baseball cap with an @ symbol and a peace sign that interlocked to make a bicycle. From the minute he walked into this liberal enclave, supporters kept approaching. He’s become something of a progressive darling, a vessel to counter the conservative resistance to President Joe Biden, including from a Supreme Court that has proven why the Senate filibuster needs changing in Barnes’ estimation. It’s a dividend he is now collecting after years of appearances at progressive policy conferences, donor retreats, and on MSNBC.
“This is a race about who will do the work for the people of Wisconsin. If the President wants to show up and join us, he’s welcome to join us,” Barnes says when asked about Biden’s political leverage in the state. “We are driving the message. We aren’t leaving it to anyone else.”
This, precisely, is why Mandela Barnes may be the best recruit Democrats have this cycle. Fresh-faced in a year voters consistently have said they want change, he is politically nimble enough to avoid splitting his Democratic Party in two, and he’s drawn high-profile pals to come join him on the trail like Sens. Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren. The drag of Biden hasn’t rendered him politically paralyzed. He is, by training, a community organizer so he knows how to build a campaign that can move hearts. And in recent weeks, he managed the unthinkable—clearing the field of his primary opponents, earning their endorsements and, in one case, almost $600,000 of their remaining ad time.
The result is stronger support for Barnes among Democrats than Johnson enjoys with his fellow Republicans. And among independents, it’s a statistical jump ball, according to Marquette University’s most recent polling. In a hypothetical head-to-head, Barnes has the narrowest of leads.
But talent and hustle only go so far. The national headwinds are against Democrats. His opponent, Johnson, has been in the Senate for two terms and has an almost 2.5-times fundraising advantage over Barnes. Polling has shown a very tight race so far but that could shift after both Barnes and Johnson put the primaries behind them on Tuesday night.
It’s been tough for Democrats to land any blows that stick with Wisconsin voters—even after $6 million in outside spending going after Johnson. During a recent four-day visit, it was tough to find any evidence that Johnson’s recent proposal to end Medicare and Social Security as automatic spending programs was persuading anyone on either side. Johnson may have an oppo book the size of a Yellow Pages, but it hasn’t been able to bury him yet. The $12 million in outside spending to back Johnson sure seems to help.
Still, Barnes is as optimistic as he is hungry. Shortly after finishing his meeting with TIME, he’s back in campaign mode, this time in a revitalized part of Milwaukee’s downtown. As patrons finish up their fried cheese curds, cajun-style hash, and an egg dish dubbed The Benedict Cumberbatch, Barnes’ volunteers start to show up on the sidewalks with signs urging people to attend the campaign’s next event inside a local brewery.
“We won’t change Washington until we change the people we’re sending to Washington,” Barnes says after hopping on a stage and looking out at a packed room where supporters spilled into the sidewalk cafe.
Those fans include a lot of familiar faces who share his pluck. “I’ve known Mandela Barnes since he was born. I’ve known his mom before she was pregnant with him,” says 69-year-old nurse Rosemary Erkins, before joking she thought the name might have been too much. “I said to her, ‘Girl, you named him Mandela. That boy’s got to do great things for that.’ Well, we’re now looking for young people to take over because the folks in there now have blown it.”
The national mood may be toxic for Democrats. But long-honed relationships like that may give Barnes a fighting chance to defy political gravity. After all, if 2020 showed us nothing, it was that Black voters—Black women in particular—made Biden President and shouldn’t be discounted. The open question for those watching this race: How much of the Black community will get to the polls? Barnes is betting a lot.
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