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Democrats explain how Mandela Barnes lost in the key Wisconsin Senate race

First Read is your briefing from “Meet the Press” and the NBC Political Unit on the day’s most important political stories and why they matter.
Mandela Barnes concedes to Republican Sen. Ron Johnson at a news conference on Nov. 9, 2022, in Milwaukee.
Mandela Barnes concedes to Republican Sen. Ron Johnson at a news conference on Nov. 9, 2022, in Milwaukee. Morry Gash / AP

WASHINGTON — If it’s Monday ... The House Jan. 6 committee holds final public meeting. ... The committee plans to issue at least three criminal referrals for former President Donald Trump, per NBC’s Ali Vitali, Kate Santaliz and Haley Talbot. ... President Biden meets with Ecuador’s president. ... New Hampshire seethes at Democrats’ presidential primary calendar changes, NBC’s Natasha Korecki writes. … Donald Trump boosts Kevin McCarthy, but not RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel. ... And a clear majority of Twitter users vote for Elon Musk to step down as CEO.

But first: For all the surprising success Democrats had in the 2022 midterms, there was one winnable race where they fell short.

Wisconsin’s Senate contest, where Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., defeated Democratic challenger Mandela Barnes.

It was the only Senate race in a state President Biden carried in 2020 that Democrats ended up losing. The defeat also took place in an election where incumbent Democratic Gov. Tony Evers won re-election, outperforming Barnes in every single Wisconsin county.

So what happened? 

In interviews, Democrats point to the power of incumbency in the cycle (just one incumbent, Democrat Gov. Steve Sisolak, lost major statewide office in 2022); they point to Barnes’ relative inexperience (as the 36-year-old lieutenant governor who had never before run for federal office or statewide separate from the governor); they point to the fact that he got out outspent after becoming the Democratic nominee; and they also point out — correctly — that he almost won, getting 49.4% and losing by just 27,000 votes. 

Yet other Democrats believe his positions on crime and policing — favoring reducing the prison population, supporting ending cash bail and displaying an “Abolish ICE T-shirt — hurt him in a state like Wisconsin 

“Mandela’s problems on crime did him in,” said one Democratic strategist familiar with the race. “It was always his biggest vulnerability.”

Added another Democratic strategist: “Mandela’s team was fully aware there would be issues, particularly relating to crime, that the campaign would need to address.”

Here was one of the Republican TV ads that attacked him: “Mandela Barnes supports no cash bail. That puts criminals like Darrell Brooks back on the streets. He’s more worried about criminals than victims.” Another: “The bad guys belong in jail. Mandela Barnes belongs nowhere near the Senate.”

And here were Barnes’ responses to those attacks: “They’re claiming I want to defund the police and abolish ICE. That’s a lie. I’ll make sure our police have the resources and training they need,” Barnes said to camera in one ad. “Mandela doesn’t want to defund the police. He’s very supportive of law enforcement,” said a retired cop in another ad

Notably, however, Barnes never directly defended his position on cash bail in his TV ads. 

Still, Barnes’ team believes it was the money disparity — not the crime issue — that hurt the campaign more. 

”They decided to hit on this crime message … I think they could have chosen anything,” Barnes campaign manager Kory Kozloski told NBC News. “If we were going to get outspent 3-to-1 or 2-to-1, it was going to have an impact. That was, in my mind, the thing that was more impactful than the specific hits themselves.”

“If we had been able to be at parity with them throughout the entire campaign, we win this race,” Kozloski added. 

Republicans did outspend Democrats over the airwaves after Barnes became the nominee, $64 million to $56 million, per AdImpact. 

But Democratic groups like Senate Majority PAC and its affiliates, as well as the DSCC, spent nearly $40 million on ads in Wisconsin during the entire cycle. 

Photo of the day: Argentina wins the World Cup

Argentina's forward Lionel Messi, center, celebrates with teammates after they won the Qatar 2022 World Cup final football match against France in Qatar.
Argentina's forward Lionel Messi, center, celebrates with teammates after they won the Qatar 2022 World Cup final football match against France in Qatar, on Dec. 18, 2022.Adrian Dennis / AFP - Getty Images

Data Download: The number of the day is … 3

That’s at least the number of criminal referrals the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the Capitol is planning to vote on related to former President Donald Trump, NBC News’ Ali Vitali, Kate Santaliz and Haley Talbot report. The referrals include charges of obstructing an official proceeding, conspiracy to defraud the government and inciting or assisting an insurrection.

The committee will meet publicly for the final time on Monday afternoon and is expected to hold those votes during the meeting, with a lengthy report detailing the committee’s findings expected to be released on Wednesday. Vitali, Santaliz and Talbot also report that the Jan. 6 committee plans to refer four GOP members of Congress to the Ethics Committee for failing to comply with a subpoena. 

Other numbers to know:

58%: The share of Twitter users who said Elon Musk should step down as head of Twitter as part of a survey Musk posted himself. He previously said he would abide by the results. 

50: How many years have passed since Biden’s first wife and infant daughter were killed in a car accident that also injured his two sons.  

54%: The percentage of people surveyed in a new USA Today poll who ranked inflation and the economy as the first or second top issue facing Americans in 2023.

36: The number of years since Argentina’s national soccer team won a World Cup before they reclaimed the title, beating France in a tense final on Sunday in Qatar, 

5: The number of years to which a Qanon believer has been sentenced to prison after leading the mob that chased Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman in the Capitol on January 6. 

25%: The percent drop in homelessness the White House aims to oversee across U.S. cities in the next two years, USA Today reports.

Eyes on 2024: Trump boosts McCarthy, snubs McDaniel

Former President Donald Trump still holds serious sway with the Republican National Committee, making his decision not to help RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel in her re-election bid notable. 

McDaniel sports the endorsements of almost two-thirds of the membership, more than she needs to secure re-election. But while Trump could have likely quelled simmering discontent among some conservatives with a nod of support, he told Breitbart “I like them both” when asked whether he preferred McDaniel or California Republican National Committeewoman Harmeet Dhillon, who served as one of his campaign’s legal advisors. 

Trump did throw another ally a bone over the weekend — House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, who is also facing some pressure from his right flank as a handful of Republicans say they won’t vote for him to become speaker. In a Breitbart interview, Trump reiterated his support for McCarthy, saying, “I like him,” and warning that the attempts to deny him the speakership could prove “dangerous.” 

In other 2024 news:

Gearing up for another run: NBC News reports that the White House held a series of closed-door meetings with top allies to counsel them on selling President Joe Biden’s record ahead of his expected re-election bid. The Washington Post reports that the re-elect wants to build out an even more robust digital campaign than it had in 2020, even as there still remain some doubts as to whether Biden will ultimately go through with a bid. 

Pence’s “identity crisis”: Politico reports on how former Vice President Mike Pence is handling the balancing act inside the GOP as a major face of the Trump administration who both broke with Trump on Jan. 6, 2021 but who hasn’t shied away from endorsing candidates who have questioned the legitimacy of that election. 

Richmond rush: Republicans have selected Pastor Leon Benjamin as their nominee ahead of February’s special election in Virginia’s 4th District, with Democrats set to choose between four candidates on Tuesday. 

Live First or Die: New Hampshire politicians and politicos are livid at the prospect of the Democratic Party pushing the state aside on the presidential nominating calendar, NBC News’ Natasha Korecki reports. 

Will he, won’t he: Arkansas Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson told “Meet the Press” on Sunday that he’ll decide by the first quarter of 2023 whether he’ll run for president. 

Will he, won’t he part 2: While West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin told CBS he has “no intentions” of leaving the Democratic Party, but he cryptically added he’s keeping an eye on the politics surrounding the implementation of the signature infrastructure and spending bills he helped pass.

Say it ain’t so, Santos: The New York Times reports that New York GOP Rep.-elect George Santos’s supposed alma materand a few supposed employers have no record of him attending or working there, and also raised questions about various other claims from his biography. 

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world

In an interview with NBC News’ Sahil Kapur, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer reflected on Democrats’ success in the midterm elections, despite challenges in the Senate over the last two years.

An Arizona judge dismissed Republican Mark Finchem’s request for a new Secretary of State election after he lost his November election to Democrat Adrian Fontes.

Multiple U.S. cities now have a level of Covid spread that meets the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions’ threshold to recommend masking in public spaces.