Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes entered the Wisconsin Democratic Senate primary with all the trappings of an automatic favorite: statewide name recognition, a national profile, high endorsements and a comfortable lead in the first polls.
Then a multimillionaire adversary invested more than $5 million in a deluge of TV ads — all while Barnes was in the dark.
Now, less than three months from the Wisconsin primary, Barnes is a long way from retiring in the Democratic group of four. Instead, a 10-point lead earlier this year fell to a 3-point lead as two of his opponents moved up. One of them, Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, who partly self-funds his campaign, is now statistically tied with Barnes after already spending $8 million on the contest.
It all culminated this week in an explosion of activity as Barnes and his allies worked to rekindle the star power that once made the only black candidate in the field the early favorite to face incumbent Republican Senator Ron Johnson in a fall contest that could tip the balance in the Senate.
Barnes broadcast his first television commercial, an outlay of $500,000, according to Ad Analytics, a TV ad tracking company. At the start of the week, the progressive organization MoveOn announced he was backing Barnes and would follow that with an investment in the state. And Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is expected to campaign for Barnes on Friday with a big rally in Madison and then a visit to Milwaukee — the first high-profile visit yet in the race.
“In my opinion, this is the kickoff of the Barnes campaign,” said Charles Franklin, the chief pollster for the Marquette Law School poll, which conducted the initial inquiries into the race. “Barnes does not have the ability to make personal loans in the countryside. So I think they spared their donations.
There’s plenty of time for the field to change and candidates to catch fire before the Aug. 9 primary, including Barnes, who could see his numbers increase now that he’s on TV. Yet the dynamics are playing out in a primary where there is little delineation between candidates on most issues and no campaign has prompted major organizing groups to rally behind them.
The main interests that have so far jumped into the race are rather divided, smashing political support and money. Franklin said the tightening of the race had “more to do with Lasry’s rise than Barnes’ collapse.”
“It’s the classic definition of an open race,” said Phil Walzak, spokesperson for state treasurer Sarah Godlewski, the third-placed candidate in the race.
Godlewski landed 7% in the latest Marquette Law School poll, but, Walzak pointed out, voters have yet to listen: Nearly half of those polled remained undecided in the race.
Two progressive groups — Our Revolution, founded by Sen. Bernie Sanders, as well as the Sunrise Movement — endorsed Tom Nelson, the Outagamie County executive who came in fourth in the poll, with 5% of those supporting him. support.
Warren, a fixture on the party’s progressive wing, backed Barnes, as did democracy for america. (Sanders did not endorse the run.)
Yet Nelson boasted that he was the one who most embraced the race’s progressive values, including strong support for “Medicare for All.”
“I am surprised [Barnes] invited the senator to Wisconsin to campaign for him,” Nelson said in an interview. “He doesn’t seem very interested in Wisconsin progressives.”
Asked about the response, Maddy McDaniel, a spokeswoman for Barnes, said: “The support we’ve seen for Mandela’s campaign is really just the start. We are thrilled to be on TV to bring Mandela’s vision directly to voters.
A contingent of labor groups, meanwhile, backed Lasry, whose ad campaign focused on job creation and touted his family’s ties to building the Fiserv Forum, the Bucks’ arena, which helped to stimulate the vitality of the downtown area.
“We view this as a very winnable race,” said Thad Nation, a Wisconsin Democratic strategist and Lasry’s campaign aide. “What we’ve seen from the start of this campaign to now is tremendous growth from Alex Lasry.”
Yet Lasry’s lavish spending hasn’t propelled him to the top spot – until now. Barnes, meanwhile, has shown the most strength in the field raising funds from small donors (under $200) and racking up a slew of endorsements across the country, from House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, DS. C., New Jersey. Senator Cory Booker and California Representative Eric Swalwell, both Democrats.
To stay on the same trajectory, Lasry will most likely have to dip into his pockets again. To date, nearly two-thirds of Lasry’s revenue has come from loans to his own campaign. In small-dollar fundraising, Barnes has shown the greatest strength on the field with $1.6 million in donations, and Godlewski, whose personal loans to his campaign account for more than half of his fundraising, came next with more than $600,000 in small dollar donations and Lasry with less than $500,000 according to the latest financial information.
That’s no small problem, given Johnson’s ability to raise funds from big and small donors as the incumbent Republican seeks his third term. He has $3.5 million in his campaign account at last public report and has no main opponents. Johnson raised $3.34 million in small contributions alone, which is more than Lasry raised from people other than himself (large and small donations combined total $3.24 million, according to latest financial information).
On Friday, Warren’s rally will focus on the possibility that the Supreme Court could overturn Roe v. Wade, a move that would overturn federal protections for abortion rights, in an attempt to capitalize on the energy emanating from party loyalists angry at a draft notice disclosed published by Politics.
Barnes has also secured support from Ilyse Hogue, the former president of abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America.
But Godlewski sewed up Emily’s List endorsement early on and said she was the first statewide nominee to broadcast an advertisement depicting abortion. She filmed the ad on the steps of the Supreme Court just after the draft notice was leaked.
“I’m in the Supreme Court, where it looks like Ron Johnson will get exactly what he wants: overturn Roe v. Wade, restore Wisconsin’s cruel abortion ban, and put doctors in jail,” she says in the announcement. “But that’s not what the people of Wisconsin want. We don’t want politicians making health care choices for women.