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Q&A with Mandela Barnes, Wisconsin’s Democratic nominee for Senate

The lieutenant governor sat for an interview with The Washington Post over coffee late last month

Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes speaks to supporters at a rally outside of state Capitol on July 23, 2022. (Sara Stathas/For The Washington Post)

MADISON, Wis. — Mandela Barnes, Wisconsin’s lieutenant governor, sat for an interview with The Washington Post on July 21 at a sleek coffee shop here to talk about what was then a crowded Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate. .

Shortly after the interview, three of his competitors dropped out and endorsed Barnes. And Tuesday night, voters made it official: Barnes is the Democratic nominee for Senate in Wisconsin.

The conversation was wide-ranging and done in advance of a story The Post published about how Barnes reckoned with his liberal past as he looked to November. The interview also touched on how he got into politics, what he sees as his path to defeating Republican Sen. Ron Johnson and what he has learned in the rare times he has lost elections.

This is a condensed transcript of the conversation:

The Post: Was there a particular moment that prompted you to run for Senate?

Barnes: It was more of a difficult decision for me. … In this role as lieutenant governor, I enjoy it every day. There are challenges. There are a lot of fun things. … So it took me a while to actually get there. But [Sen.] Ron Johnson being as reckless as he has been? I could go through this, run for lieutenant governor again or do the work to get rid of the worst senator. … I just couldn’t sit idly by.

The Post: Was there any one thing that particularly bothered you about Johnson?

Barnes: It’s not a one thing. It’s a series of events. A series of things, a series of statements. … whether it is conspiracy theories about the vaccine … voting against pandemic relief, voting against the infrastructure bill.

[In a tweet from his campaign account Tuesday night, Johnson called Barnes “another radical liberal who will cave to the whims of Democrat leadership.” On Wednesday, Johnson wrote, “I’m honored to represent Wisconsin Republicans on the ballot this November. It’s time we finally hold the Democrats accountable for their failures.” ]

The Post: What would your coalition be in a general election?

Barnes: It is intergenerational, it is multiracial, it is labor unions. It is farmers. It is working people all across the state of Wisconsin: teachers, service workers, people in the trades, you name it.

The Post: How do you think President Biden is doing?

Barnes: He’s been faced with some challenges, mainly the U.S. Senate. The Senate is a broken place. The Senate has refused to deliver for working people, and Ron Jonson hasn’t lifted a finger to help us out.

The Post: Would you want President Biden to campaign with you?

Barnes: If he wants to come to Wisconsin, please, come on down. We’re here to talk about a vision, rebuild the middle class, and if he wants to join us in carrying that vision across the state, he’s more than welcome to do so.

The Post: You’ve differed with Biden on his attempt to end a pandemic-era program that halted some immigration. Is there anything else on which you differ from Biden?

Barnes: I would differ maybe on lifting the Chinese tariffs. We’ve got to hold bad actors accountable. I look at what has happened in communities like mine in Milwaukee, with the loss of good-paying jobs because companies move their good-paying, union jobs overseas, and in that void that was left — it was filled with crime and violence. And we see the same thing happening in rural communities with loss of opportunity and we see the addiction crisis tearing rural communities apart.

And, on top of that, I’ve had enough conversations working with farmers who are frustrated with the concentration of agriculture.

The Post: One wise political strategist I know likes to say that parties and candidates learn things only when they lose. You lost a race in 2016, what did you learn?

Barnes: I learned a whole lot. First, I believe that completely — 100 percent — I say the same thing to people: I learned so much more in that race I lost. And it’s: Never take anything for granted. Strategy matters. And listening matters.

[Barnes won his first race at age 25, defeating a Democratic member of the state’s Assembly in a primary.] You can almost feel like you know everything at that point. … Almost like nobody could tell you anything. So after a loss, okay, well, that was not true. So it certainly helped me. I promise you, I would not be lieutenant governor if I didn’t lose that state Senate race.

The Post: Tell me about your relationship with Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman.

Barnes: He also lost. He ran for U.S. Senate in 2016, the same year I ran for state Senate. I donated to his Senate campaign. We both won our primaries [for lieutenant governor] in 2018, being swing-state Democrats. I think that’s when we first engaged.

We were two people who didn’t necessarily fit political molds. He’s certainly a “do whatever he wants” kind of guy. And it has worked out. I respect that.

The Post: Does the fact that two people who don’t fit political molds are advancing in the Democratic Party say anything about the party changing?

Barnes: I think it says less about party and more about society. One of the biggest pieces of feedback in 2018, after Congress started to work a little bit, was that we had unlikely candidates. [Democrats won control of the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections.] And my response was, they are the most likely Americans. These are the people who live life as most people live life. And why shouldn’t this perspective be present in decision-making bodies? Especially Congress.

Understanding the 2022 Midterm Elections

November’s midterm elections are likely to shift the political landscape and impact what President Biden can accomplish during the remainder of his first term. Here’s what to know.

When are the midterm elections? The general election is Nov. 8, but the primary season is nearing completion, with voters selecting candidates in the New York and Florida primaries Tuesday. Here’s a complete calendar of all the primaries in 2022.

Why are the midterms important? The midterm elections determine control of Congress: The party that has the House or Senate majority gets to organize the chamber and decide what legislation Congress considers. Thirty six governors and thousands of state legislators are also on the ballot. Here’s a complete guide to the midterms.

Which seats are up for election? Every seat in the House and a third of the seats in the 100-member Senate are up for election. Dozens of House members have already announced they will be retiring from Congress instead of seeking reelection.

What is redistricting? Redistricting is the process of drawing congressional and state legislative maps to ensure everyone’s vote counts equally. As of April 25, 46 of the 50 states had settled on the boundaries for 395 of 435 U.S. House districts.

Which primaries are the most competitive? Here are the most interesting Democratic primaries and Republican primaries to watch as Republicans and Democrats try to nominate their most electable candidates.