NORTH MILWAUKEE, Wis.—Just three weeks before Election Day, inside a neoclassical bank building turned café, Mandela Barnes, the lieutenant governor of Wisconsin and Democratic nominee for Senate, sat at a table listening to nine Black women share their birthing stories. They spoke of miscarriages, hospitals that ignored their pleas for help as they labored, and postpartum depression. They said they wanted him to be a deciding vote to provide more support for doulas, Medicaid funding for care after birth, and other priorities that might improve the lives of Black women.
“There are not enough people who want to take the time to consider what somebody else’s life has been like,” Barnes said. “And they want to bastardize people because of decisions that had to be made.” As he began talking about his plans, two gunshots rang out in the distance. A member of his security team peered outside. But Barnes stayed on message, forging ahead as if nothing had happened. “We’ve got to be intentional about this, about better birth outcomes.”
Following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Barnes campaign has focused heavily on women’s health. “People think of abortion as an isolated issue,” rather than a general health-care issue, Barnes told the roundtable—or even an economic issue, when one considers the costs of raising a child. For much of the summer, that looked like a winning strategy; polls showed Barnes with as much as a six-point lead over Johnson.
But things look tighter now, as Barnes’s effort to define the race around women’s health has been challenged by his Republican opponent, Senator Ron Johnson, who has seized on voters’ rising concerns about crime. In the fall, Johnson blanketed the airwaves with ads that painted Barnes as nonchalant about crime, and during a recent campaign event with Wisconsin’s Fraternal Order of Police, Johnson told those gathered that Barnes has “far greater sympathy for the criminal or criminals versus law enforcement or the victims.”
These attacks would prove quite effective—for clear reasons. In 2019, there were 185 reported homicides in Wisconsin; by 2021, that number had skyrocketed to 315. A recent Marquette University poll found that 92 percent of registered voters in the state were at least somewhat concerned about crime—with 68 percent reporting they were very concerned.
In Milwaukee, near the Barnes event I attended, the crime increase has been particularly dramatic. Over the first half of the year, Milwaukee registered the most dramatic homicide spike among any of the 29 large cities studied in a recent report from the nonpartisan Council on Criminal Justice. Milwaukee is the biggest Democratic stronghold in the state; more than 300,000 people there voted for Joe Biden in 2020. If Johnson’s crime messaging resonates particularly with voters in and around Milwaukee, Barnes will take a considerable hit.
And that seems to be what is happening. As Johnson’s ads played on loop this fall, Barnes saw his lead steadily shrink, then disappear altogether. In recent weeks, Barnes has tried to push back, telling MSNBC that he “won’t be lectured about crime from somebody who supported a violent insurrection that left 140 officers injured.” That may not work when it’s local crime that voters are worried about. Democrats, meanwhile, do seem to be fairly concerned about abortion—a large majority of Democrats in Wisconsin, 81 percent, rank abortion policy as their primary concern in this election—but, at least by the polling, that seems to not be drawing out voters with quite the same urgency as crime. What once seemed like one of the Democrats’ best chances to flip a seat and preserve their slender hold on the Senate, and with it Biden’s hopes of pursuing his legislative agenda, is now at best a toss-up.
This follows a national pattern. In races all across the country—Pennsylvania, New York, North Carolina, Oregon—Republicans have used concern about crime to hammer their Democratic opponents. As my colleague David A. Graham writes, “The party [has been] left without a message—much less an actual policy—that steers between being electorally disastrous and morally monstrous.”
Still, Barnes hopes his strategy of touching every part of the state—and relentlessly highlighting what he sees as Johnson’s failures—will lead to success at the polls. “We’re talking about all the ways that he has left people behind for 12 years, and how we plan to right those wrongs,” he told me.
Barnes’s campaign has leaned heavily on his biography. He sailed to the Democratic nomination earlier this summer after his primary opponents bowed out of the race and threw their support behind him. Barnes, who in 2018 became the second Black person ever elected to statewide office in Wisconsin, has deliberately stressed the aspects of his upbringing to which swing voters are likely to relate. In a state where the first unions were formed before the Civil War, and continue to play a significant role in the state’s politics, both of his parents were union members. His mother was a teacher; his father worked the third shift on an assembly line, as Barnes frequently reminds voters.
And they also hope to paint Johnson as out-of-touch with the state. In a recent interview, Jim Paine, the mayor of Superior, who has endorsed Barnes, pointed to what he believes is a prime example of Johnson’s neglect. On April 26, 2018, the fire from an explosion at Wisconsin’s only oil refinery, in Superior, shot black plumes of smoke into the air. Three dozen people were injured. Many of the city’s 27,000 residents were forced to temporarily evacuate to avoid the potentially noxious chemicals in the air. It was one of the largest refinery fires in the history of the United States.
Following the explosion, Paine heard from state leaders and federal officials who offered to help. Scott Walker, the Republican governor of Wisconsin, came to Superior; so did Tammy Baldwin, the state’s Democratic senator. Minnesota’s governor called. The White House, under President Donald Trump, reached out to ask what support Superior might need from the federal government. “But I never heard from Ron Johnson,” Paine told me. “It is as stark a failure of leadership as I have ever seen.” (Johnson’s office did not respond to a request to comment for this article.)
Of course, there’s more to politics than simply being somewhere, but people remember absence as much as presence. “I’m closing in on six years here, and I have met every single person that directly represents me or the city bottom to top, including the president of the United States,” Paine offered, but he’s not yet met Johnson. Meanwhile, he added, he’s probably seen Barnes in Superior more than any other elected state official. That has been part of Barnes’s electoral strategy as well. Through tours at family farms—which the campaign has called Barns for Barnes—and aggressive campaigning outside cities, Barnes has hoped to broaden his coalition beyond liberal strongholds like Milwaukee or Madison.
Barnes has also been aided by grassroots efforts such as Moms for Mandela, which began as an Instagram account started by Kate Duffy, who lives just outside Milwaukee, and grew into a movement of its own. “I knew how important the Senate race was going to be not only for Wisconsin, but for the entire country,” Duffy told me. She had never been an active participant in organizing before. “I wanted to get involved, and started it on Instagram because that’s where the moms are.” She found that others, like her, were “equally upset” about Dobbs and mass shootings, but did not know how to engage politically. They found community through the group—but they also found a candidate they believed in, one with a positive message for the country.
Democrats pinned their hopes on Barnes as a promising candidate running a pro-union, progressive campaign in a purple state against an incumbent who has refused to acknowledge that January 6 was an armed insurrection, and who questions the legitimacy of the 2020 election. So if Johnson’s focus on crime secures his reelection, it won’t just be a defeat for Barnes—it will raise broader questions about the Democratic Party’s pitch to voters.