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Barnes wins Democratic Senate primary in Wisconsin, finalizing showdown with Ron Johnson

Mandela Barnes' projected victory, which had been all but certain after a trio of competitors dropped out, sets up a pivotal battleground race against Republican Sen. Ron Johnson.
Image: Mandela Barnes
Mandela Barnes speaks to supporters at a rally outside the Wisconsin State Capital in Madison on July 23.Sara Stathas / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes has won Wisconsin’s Democratic Senate primary, NBC News projects, officially setting up a pivotal battleground state showdown with incumbent Republican Ron Johnson in a race that could determine control of the Senate.

Barnes' victory was all but certain after his three leading competitors exited the race in recent weeks. Barnes and groups supporting him have already targeted Johnson, who also easily won his primary, with a barrage of television and digital ads in anticipation of the November matchup.

Wisconsin’s Senate race will be one the closest and most intensely watched in the country, and Senate control could hinge on the outcome — it's for one of just two Republican-held seats up for grabs in states Joe Biden won in 2020. The race is rated as a toss-up by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

A Marquette University Law School poll from June showed a tight hypothetical race between Barnes and Johnson. The survey — taken before many Democrats dropped out — showed Barnes leading Johnson, 46% to 44%, within the margin of sampling error. 

The same poll found Wisconsin voters’ opinion of Johnson, a two-term incumbent, on the wane, with just 37% of registered voters having a favorable opinion of him, compared to 46% who had an unfavorable one.

Johnson has attracted controversy in recent years over a litany of false or questionable claims. He has downplayed the Jan. 6, 2021, riot, falsely claiming that there was “no violence” on the Senate side of the Capitol that day. He has also attracted criticism for promoting the use of unproven Covid therapies like ivermectin, and he has claimed falsely that using mouthwash can protect against the coronavirus.

Johnson, 67, who was elected to the Senate in 2010, had pledged to serve only two terms, but he reversed course in January when he decided, after months of deliberation, to run for re-election again.

Democrats rolled out new ads attacking Johnson on Tuesday morning, before the final votes had even been cast for Barnes, trying to paint him as out of touch.

Barnes, 35, was early to brand himself a progressive — a move that has already attracted attacks from Republicans, who have repeatedly pointed to a photo of him holding up an “abolish ICE” shirt.

The Barnes campaign made it clear early in the primary that he did not support the movement, nor did he support “defunding the police,” but Republicans are certain to keep up the attacks in the general election.

Barnes emerged last month as the prohibitive front-runner in the primary after his three leading competitors exited the race and endorsed him. 

His main rival had been Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, who, despite having sunk at least $12.3 million of his personal wealth into his campaign, never overtook him in the polls. Lasry dropped out July 27 and immediately endorsed Barnes, calling him “the best person to be able to defeat Ron Johnson.” The day before, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson left the race, and days later, State Treasurer Sara Godlewski did, too, effectively clearing the field for Barnes, whom they both endorsed.

Barnes gained momentum this summer with a series of high-profile endorsements — from Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Cory Booker of New Jersey and others, as well as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. 

Barnes, who goes by his middle name in honor of Nelson Mandela, the former South African president and anti-apartheid activist, grew up in the inner city of Milwaukee. He attended college at Alabama A&M, a historically Black university, and worked as a community organizer before he won a seat in the state Assembly in 2012, representing part of the north side of Milwaukee.

After he won the 2018 Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, Barnes and Tony Evers toppled Gov. Scott Walker, a two-term Republican. The victory made Barnes the first Black person to hold the office and only the second Black person to win a statewide race in Wisconsin. He would be the first Black senator to represent Wisconsin if he wins the general election.