MADISON, Wis. — In 2019, Mandela Barnes traveled to neighboring Minnesota, where he visited a recycling facility with Rep. Ilhan Omar.
“She’s brilliant. She cares about the environment,” read the tweet. It also said: “She’s exactly who we need in Congress right now fighting for what’s right.”
Nearly three years later, Barnes, 35, is distancing himself from Omar and some polarizing ideas he has associated himself with as he closes in on the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in a marquee battleground. The contest holds the potential to decide control of the upper chamber of Congress in November.
“A staff person tweeted that out,” Barnes said in an interview with The Washington Post last week, speaking of the August 2019 tweet about Omar. “That wasn’t even my Twitter, that was the official side Twitter.”
The comment is part of Barnes’s careful strategy as he looks to a potential showdown against Republican Sen. Ron Johnson. This past week, three of Barnes’s Democratic competitors left the race and endorsed him, giving him a clear path to the nomination in the Aug. 9 primary.
As he runs in one of the country’s most closely contested states, Barnes has faced Republican attacks for the appearance with Omar, for once holding up a T-shirt with the phrase “Abolish ICE,” for saying he supports moving funds from police departments to community programs, and, in a speech referring to slavery and colonization, describing the founding of the country as “awful.”
Even as Barnes has sought to clarify himself in all of those instances, some Democrats have privately voiced worries that they could cause problems for him this fall. Quelling those apprehensions has been an important task in the primary, close observers said.
“Barnes understands the concern that he couldn’t win a general election. So in some ways, he has to run his primary in a way that dispels those concerns,” said David Axelrod, a former top adviser to Barack Obama. “It’s a parable about the challenges of running as a progressive in a swing state and what that requires.”
Barnes has also showed strength in his party, consolidating support in a crowded race with a message underscoring a commitment to working-class voters. In rapid succession, Barnes’s three main competitors — businessman Alex Lasry, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson and state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski — each withdrew over the past week and endorsed him.
After making history by becoming the first Black lieutenant governor of Wisconsin, Barnes would be the state’s first Black senator if elected this fall. He has won the support of leading figures on the left, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), as well as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). He is also backed by more moderate Democrats, such as Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.).
Like some other Democratic candidates who rose to prominence during the Trump administration, a period of impassioned and confrontational political activism on the left, Barnes’s past associations have come under the spotlight at a moment when many party strategists see a more moderate path as a better blueprint for electoral success in the current political climate.
When it comes to policy, the Senate contender has championed several ideas long advocated by liberals. He has voiced support for Medicare-for-all, saying it is the quickest way to get to universal health care. He has said he believes in a “Green New Deal” that’s tailored for his state. He would end the cash bail system. He also supports structural changes to the federal government, favoring term limits for Supreme Court justices and expressing openness to expanding the size of the court. He says he would end the Senate filibuster.
But he has also chided President Biden from the right, saying in the interview with The Post that the administration should not have tried to move ahead with lifting a public health restriction on immigration without a plan to replace it. Still, Barnes said he would welcome a chance to campaign with Biden.
Barnes identifies as part of a new crop of Senate candidates who defy traditional labels, a trait he shares with Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman — a fellow lieutenant governor he has gotten to know in the past few years.
“We’re two people who didn’t necessarily fit political molds,” said Barnes, who added that they bonded over being “swing state Democrats.”
In the interview at a trendy coffee shop here in Madison, Barnes said voters have gotten to know him as an advocate for the working-class, and he played down potential vulnerabilities identified by some fellow Democrats.
“I have done the hard work and built credibility,” he said. “It’s not coming down to labels or specific ideology.”
He also discussed Omar, who is frequently criticized by Republicans for her political views. Omar has clashed with some Democrats over her rebukes of the Israeli government and what Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democratic leaders once called her “use of anti-Semitic tropes.”
Barnes said he admired the personal journey of the congresswoman, who fled civil war in Somalia with her family as a child. “She came from circumstances that most of us would never have been able to make it out of and became a member of Congress,” Barnes said.
But, asked about the 2019 tweet about Omar, he added, “I don’t just throw around the word ‘brilliant.’ ”
Barnes has also faced scrutiny over other parts of his recent past. He was photographed posing with a red T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “Abolish ICE,” a slogan some on the left embraced that references U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It’s not clear when the photo was taken, but it was posted on Reddit in 2018. Also in 2018, Barnes wrote “I need that” on social media in response to a person who offered him an “Abolish ICE” T-shirt in his size.
Barnes subsequently distanced himself from the slogan, saying he does not support eliminating the agency and was expressing solidarity with those upset by President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.
“He does support comprehensive immigration reform that ensures we can protect our borders while creating a path to citizenship for DREAMers and their families, and making sure no children are cruelly separated from their parents,” Barnes spokeswoman Maddy McDaniel said in a statement.
When it comes to policing, another divisive issue, Barnes has said departments should continue to exist but suggested that some of their funding could be directed elsewhere. “We need to invest more in neighborhood services and programming for our residents, for our communities on the front end,” Barnes said in a 2020 interview with PBS Wisconsin. “Where will that money come from? Well, it can come from over-bloated budgets in police departments.”
McDaniel said Barnes does not support defunding the police — a left-wing slogan rejected by Biden and many Democrats and criticized sharply by Republicans. “What he does support is investing just as heavily in preventing crime from occurring in the first place in addition to ensuring law enforcement agencies have the resources they need to keep us safe,” McDaniel said.
GOP activists and strategists have also criticized some of Barnes’s comments from last year. During an August 2021 event in Wisconsin, amid a national debate over school curriculums, Barnes talked about the country’s early days. “Things were bad. Things were terrible. The founding of this nation? Awful,” Barnes said. “The impacts are felt today. They’re going to continue to be felt unless we address it in a meaningful way.”
He continued: “We are here now, and we should commit ourselves to doing everything we can do to repair the harm, because it still exists today — the harm, the damage. Whether it was colonization, or whether it was slavery.”
The words prompted swift attacks from Republicans, who left out his references to slavery. “Barnes’ comments prove why Democrats are advocating for policies that would fundamentally dismantle our country,” said the Republican Party of Wisconsin’s rapid response director, Mike Marinella, in a statement to local media.
Barnes’s spokeswoman said portraying his comment “as anything other than a condemnation of slavery is a sad GOP attempt to distract from Ron Johnson trying to literally overthrow the government of this country and strip reproductive rights from millions of Americans.”
Republicans have seized on Barnes’s past comments, photographs and videos as they gear up to make a case that he is too far to the left for the state in the general election.
“Who needs oppo when [Barnes] supplies this stuff himself?” asked Anna Kelly, the communications director for the state’s GOP, in a tweet accompanied by four photos, including Barnes with Omar, Barnes holding up the Abolish ICE T-shirt and separate shots of Barnes with Warren and Sanders.
Yet the GOP is navigating its own challenges. Johnson, one of his party’s most vulnerable senators this year, has been polarizing, saying that those who dislike their state’s laws restricting abortion “can move,” carving out a role in Washington as one of the Senate’s most prominent 2020 election deniers and blaming the school massacre in Uvalde, Tex., on failures to teach adequate values in schools and “wokeness.”
With an evenly divided Senate, both parties see the Wisconsin race as a critical battlefront in the fight for control of the chamber. In pursuit of the seat, Barnes and his allies have been seeking to make a personal pitch to voters.
“If we want to change Washington, we have to change the kind of people we send to Washington,” said Barnes, speaking on July 23 at a waterfront rally in Milwaukee that was headlined by Warren.
Barnes, addressing the crowd, said that voters should be frustrated by inflation, which he blamed on large corporations putting the “squeeze” on families. “That frustration is what pushes us to action,” he said, channeling an anti-incumbent message.
“The U.S. Senate is broken,” Barnes said. “It refuses to deliver for people like us.”
The Democratic challenger has focused on a message of improving conditions for blue-collar voters and has played up his working-class roots. “Hard work needs to be respected again,” Barnes says in one of his TV ads.
Across the state, some voters said they felt that Barnes was a familiar presence whose biography would overpower any concerns about liberal comments.
“His background makes him a really good contrast with Ron Johnson, because he comes from the working class,” said Dan Larsen, a Democratic candidate for the State Assembly, who joined those crowded into a tiny Ozaukee County Democrats office in Grafton recently to hear Gov. Tony Evers, who will also be on the ballot this year. “He’s definitely capable of connecting with folks.”
Barnes was named after former South African president Nelson Mandela. He said he was inspired to get involved in politics when he heard Obama’s 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention.
He hoped to work on Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, signing up for a program that he thought would lead to a position, but instead, he found himself working on a congressional race in Louisiana. The candidate lost by about 300 votes, he said, a hard lesson but an experience that gave him longtime friends and hands-on experience in a campaign.
He has worked as a community organizer in the state. At age 25 in 2012, after making connections in Democratic circles, he defeated a sitting member of the State Assembly in a primary to represent northern Milwaukee. But in 2016 he hit a roadblock, trying to unseat a Democratic state senator by arguing, according to news reports at the time, that “fresh, transformational leadership” was needed. He lost.
By 2018, he focused on economic issues when he launched his bid for lieutenant governor, winning the Democratic primary. That gave him a berth on the gubernatorial ticket headed by Tony Evers. The pair won, defeating GOP Gov. Scott Walker.
Though the office carries few official responsibilities, Barnes used the platform to build support outside his base in Milwaukee by traveling frequently beyond the capital, according to Democratic activists.
Barnes frequently invokes his parents on the campaign trail. His mother, a longtime schoolteacher, was featured in a recent TV spot that described her decision to have an abortion. “The pregnancy had complications and there was very little chance of survival,” Mandela Barnes says in the spot. “It was my decision. Not some politician’s,” says his mother, LaJuan Barnes.
During a recent campaign stop on a sweltering afternoon at a neighborhood brewery in Milwaukee, Barnes invoked his father, a retired assembly-line worker and member of the United Auto Workers. Recalling how a local leader of the Service Employees International Union once asked how the union could trust him once he was in office, Barnes noted his dad’s ties to organized labor.
“I said, ‘Let me tell you, if I do the wrong thing, I’ve got my dad to worry about. Not SEIU,” Barnes said, earning a big laugh from his father, who was in the audience.