Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who lost a bid for U.S. Senate last year, speaks to supporters on November 6, 2022 in Milwaukee.
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Updated: January 5, 2023 10:09 AM EST | Originally published: January 3, 2023 7:00 AM EST

Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, is set to gavel in the new Senate on Tuesday after midterm elections in which his party retained all of its seats and picked up an additional one in Pennsylvania. Yet despite the good fortunes for Democrats, efforts to advance their agenda in the Senate will largely remain blocked by two speed bumps: Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.

In the Senate, opponents can derail most bills with a filibuster unless supporters have 60 votes. Democrats need 50 votes to bypass the filibuster. They have 49. Manchin, the most conservative Senate Democrat, opposes changing Senate rules to allow his party to pass more bills with a simple majority. So does Sinema, who recently became an independent and has said she won’t caucus with Democrats. That leaves Democrats one vote shy of bypassing the filibuster on issues like abortion and voting rights.

In the minds of some progressives, the crucial 50th vote was within reach in Wisconsin, where right-wing Sen. Ron Johnson’s margin of victory was 1%. It was the closest Senate race that Democrats lost last year, and one that supporters of Democrat Mandela Barnes say raises uncomfortable questions about the limits of the party’s support for progressive candidates, particularly Black ones.

“I think that there’s certain powers that be that also have a vested interest in progressives and people of color not winning in swing states, because what that means is that the floodgates are open and more progressives can run,” says Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which supported Barnes’ campaign.

In the weeks before Election Day, Republicans seized on crime as a sore spot for Barnes. Ads against the Wisconsin Democrat painted him as “too dangerous” for the state. One included his name overlaid on a crime scene. Critics said the ads played on racist fears of Black men. Democrats both in Wisconsin and nationally feared the strategy was working.

“Every digital outlet, anything with a screen, was screaming with anti-Barnes propaganda,” says Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. “I don’t know a single Democrat in Wisconsin who wasn’t ripping their hair out in September. There was a sense of worry, bordering on panic.”

Barnes’ campaign raised more than $40 million and outside groups spent tens of millions more backing him. But all that paled in comparison to what Johnson supporters poured into the race. Johnson’s backers included the usual Republican juggernauts, as well as a super PAC partly funded by Liz and Dick Uihlein, top GOP megadonors who have a summer home in the state.

While earlier polls saw Barnes leading, Johnson began to eclipse him in September. Johnson ultimately won re-election by about 27,000 votes, out of more than 2.6 million cast. Some Barnes supporters are convinced a little extra money in the final stretch could have made all the difference. “The reality here is, five million more dollars spent in September, we probably win this race,” says campaign manager Kory Kozloski.

‘Garbage Partisan Polls’

Heading into the election season, Johnson was widely viewed as the most vulnerable Republican Senator. Not only was he the only one running in a state that President Biden narrowly won in 2020, but his approval rating was among the lowest in the Senate. In recent years, he has expressed openness to anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, advanced baseless claims of election fraud, and downplayed the Jan. 6 attack. To Democrats, his positions appeared too extreme for voters in battleground Wisconsin.

Throughout the Democratic primary, Barnes remained the frontrunner. The state’s first Black lieutenant governor, Barnes frequently drew comparisons to former President Barack Obama for his potential to make history again—he would have been Wisconsin’s first Black senator—but also for his ability to appeal to a multiracial coalition of working-class people.

His record also included potential drawbacks. While serving in the state assembly, Barnes built a reputation as a staunch progressive, particularly on criminal justice issues. His sponsorship of a plan to end cash bail became an especially salient campaign issue last year after a man released on bail killed six by driving his car through the Waukesha Christmas parade. Barnes argued that his proposed bail reforms would have kept the perpetrator in jail, but Republicans pounced anyway. They also highlighted his history of questioning police budgets and a photo of Barnes holding an “Abolish ICE” T-shirt. His campaign insisted Barnes did not support defunding the police or abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Among Barnes’ progressive allies, there’s a sense that national Democratic strategists and donors may have supported Barnes, but that their support was halfhearted, because they viewed his past statements on criminal justice as major liabilities. In the weeks ahead of Election Day, the pessimism around Barnes’ chances grew, with some Democrats privately predicting he could lose badly.

“The takeaway to me is to not pay attention to garbage partisan polls from the right,” Wikler says.

Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party, argues that those Democrats who painted Barnes as too progressive didn’t support him strongly enough in the aftermath of the primary, a lack of enthusiasm that dampened efforts to get deep-pocketed donors to spend what was needed on his behalf in Wisconsin.

“We have to invest in our young talent,” Mitchell says. “When Mandela is one of the more talented voices in the Democratic Party, this was the opportunity to show full investment, and it was a missed opportunity.”

Apart from their efforts protecting incumbents, Democrats made their most significant investments last year in Pennsylvania, where John Fetterman flipped a Senate seat. He did so despite a criminal justice record that Republicans portrayed as prioritizing the treatment of criminals over public safety—the very same attack that stymied Barnes.

To be clear, national Democrats also put lots of money into helping Barnes win. After Fetterman, Barnes was the non-incumbent who got the most outside spending. Senate Majority PAC, which is affiliated with Schumer, and other affiliates invested over $40 million in paid media and field work in the race, starting attacks against Johnson early in the year and outspending its Republican counterpart during the general election period. But according to data provided by the Barnes campaign, that dynamic shifted drastically in September, when outside spending on ads attacking Barnes dwarfed outside spending on anti-Johnson ads, largely thanks to Johnson’s wealthy backers.

One Wisconsin political strategist noted to TIME that John Stocks, a former executive director of the National Education Association who now advises some of the country’s wealthiest left-of-center donors on which candidates to support, did not push donors to invest in Barnes. But Wikler disputed that characterization. Stocks declined to comment.

‘A Strategic Mistake’

The closeness of Johnson’s win has some progressives lamenting the money Democrats spent elsewhere. They complain most frequently about Tim Ryan, the Democratic nominee in the Ohio Senate race who portrayed himself as a moderate and lost by six points to J.D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy who won the GOP primary with the backing of Donald Trump.

“Whether explicitly or implicitly, it’s like, ‘Oh, we have kind of a white guy populist running in Ohio,’” says Green, with the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “It spoke to some people in a way that a Black progressive running in Wisconsin did not, and that’s really unfortunate, resulting in some very bad political choices.”

Ryan was long considered a longshot in Ohio, where Trump won two years earlier by 8 percentage points. Senate Majority PAC did not spend in the Ohio Senate race, but other Democratic groups did. Among those who prioritized Ohio was Dmitri Mehlhorn, who advises LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and other wealthy donors.

“We got [Republicans] to spend a bunch of money,” says Mehlhorn, reflecting on the decision to spend in Ohio. “That money, along with critical attention and time, came at the expense of Republican efforts in other battlegrounds. If the GOP hadn’t had to spend that effort in Ohio, would they win Nevada?”

Mehlhorn adds that his network of donors did invest millions in Wisconsin, including by donating to Barnes’ campaign directly.

“That said, we believe that our allies in Wisconsin benefit from our work to expand the map,” he says.

The contrast between the Ohio and Wisconsin results could inform how Democrats approach a tough Senate map in 2024. Barnes’ narrow loss provides a proof point that a young, Black progressive can be competitive in a swing state in the middle of the country, and suggests the fears about his criminal justice record were not as much of a handicap as some Democrats had feared.

“I think in the end, you see that that underestimated how good a candidate he was,” says Charles Franklin, who runs the Marquette Law School Poll in Wisconsin.

But while progressives suggest that the difference between a win and a loss in Wisconsin was more investment, others wonder if the Barnes campaign made a strategic error in not directly rebutting Johnson’s attacks earlier on.

“The remaining question is, was there a campaign strategy during that first month, where he might have hit back harder, might have moved away from his more positive campaigns sooner?” Franklin asks.

Throughout the general election, Barnes’ campaign centered the Democrat’s own uplifting biography, while attacking Johnson mostly on abortion.

“When [voters] got to know him, they didn’t believe the ads,” says Kozloski. “They saw through all the BS that the Republicans were trying to throw at him.”

Ultimately, what Republicans threw at Barnes cost him the race. What remains to be seen is what strategy Democrats will pursue to shield their candidates from such attacks in the future—or if they’ll pursue any new strategy at all.

“It’s very easy, after electoral losses like that, to learn the wrong lessons, or not learn a lesson at all, and just kind of move forward,” Mitchell says. “And we think that that would be a strategic mistake.”

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Write to Mini Racker at mini.racker@time.com.

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