Meet Mandela Barnes, the 35-Year-Old Candidate Working to Oust Ron Johnson

MILWAUKEE — Millennials came of age at a time of crisis. They are the first generation in American history positioned to be worse off than their parents, their economic trajectory forever altered by the economic meltdown of the late 2000s, as the ladders to the middle class were pulled up or broken by the crushing burden of student debt, the decline of unions and skyrocketing health care and housing costs, and as rapid technological changes proved more calamitous than democratizing.

Mandela Barnes — who won the Democratic Senate primary in Wisconsin on Tuesday night — understands the challenges this era has thrust upon millennials better than most in his position. Serving under Tony Evers as the lieutenant governor of the state, Mr. Barnes is just 35 years old, and if elected could be only the second senator born in the 1980s.

In many respects, he embodies both the flaws and the promise of his generation. Running to be the first Black man to represent a Rust Belt state in the Senate since Roland Burris, he is talented, charismatic and passionate, a fresh face entering the national scene in a party still dominated by an aging political establishment. But like many other millennial politicians now considering higher office, his path was a more progressive one. Mr. Barnes came up as a young State Assembly representative on Milwaukee’s liberal North Side. This fall, he will face challenging questions about his record, like his position on bail reform and the Evers administration’s response to the unrest in Kenosha.

But he has the tools he needs to overcome them — he can win this race in part because he has endeared himself to mainstream Democrats as a member of the Evers administration, and because he may be able to tap into a new pool of Wisconsin voters.

The fault lines in American politics are sometimes generational as well as ideological, and that is certainly part of the story unfolding in the midterm elections in Wisconsin, where Senator Ron Johnson, the incumbent Republican — a vulnerable one — faces a Democrat roughly half his age.

Mr. Barnes is more than a decade younger than any of the other swing state Democrats running for Senate this year. If elected, he and Jon Ossoff of Georgia would be the only millennials in the upper chamber.

This generation is not especially well represented in Washington. Just 31 people born between 1981 and 1996 are currently serving in the House. And the Senate is the oldest it has ever been. One-third of its members are over the age of 70, and there are roughly as many members of the Senate in their 80s (seven) as there are under the age of 50 (eight).

As Jamelle Bouie wrote recently, the older guard lacks “any sense of urgency and crisis — any sense that our system is on the brink.” Democrats have been delivering legislative wins as of late, such as the Inflation Reduction Act, the Senate’s sweeping health and climate bill, but it’s been an arduous process to get there, stalled by filibusters and parliamentarians and everyday D.C. gridlock.

Mr. Barnes, for his part, seems to grasp what the old guard does not. He has put eliminating the filibuster front and center in his campaign and has, throughout his career, talked about the need for Democrats to be more bold, both in their messaging and on “bread and butter issues” like health care, environmental issues and racial injustice.

As a young Black millennial from a tough part of a large Midwestern city, he can give voice to issues many in the Senate cannot relate to, and he can do it through lived experience. He’s the son of a United Auto Workers father and a public-school teacher mother, who was born in a troubled, high-poverty area of Milwaukee.

Of course, Mr. Barnes has his flaws as a candidate. He has encountered several mini controversies. He was once photographed holding an “Abolish ICE” T-shirt and has worked alongside Representative Ilhan Omar from neighboring Minnesota and called her “brilliant” — the type of thing that could irk centrist swing voters.

But some of Mr. Barnes’s controversies are actually reasons that he may understand where younger voters are coming from. He was delinquent on a property tax payment and had an incomplete college degree (both since rectified). He also drew negative headlines for being on BadgerCare (Wisconsin’s Medicaid program) while he was running for lieutenant governor in 2018. But encountering financial challenges and making some early career mistakes sounds like a typical millennial experience. Perhaps if more of our elected officials faced similar challenges, they’d have a better idea of how to help others find solutions to them.

Of course, one does not need to be a millennial to understand their problems, and age alone does not guarantee support from younger voters. Many in the demographic gravitated to Bernie Sanders over other, younger candidates in the last two presidential primaries. But Mr. Sanders’s popularity was rooted in the fact that the country he described mirrored the one that millennials had experienced — one in which economic precarity and wealth inequality had transformed the American dream into pure fantasy.

To be fair, plenty of other Democratic candidates are harnessing this kind of rhetoric. John Fetterman in Pennsylvania is one example. But because of his relative youth, Mr. Barnes is uniquely well positioned to give voice to the anxieties and problems of his generation: We millennials were introduced to the horrors of school shootings through the massacre at Columbine in our adolescence; now our children go through active shooter drills in pre-K. Our country is not doing enough to address climate change, economic inequality, systemic racism, rapidly eroding reproductive rights, diminishing voting rights or the skyrocketing costs of health care, child care and housing. The list goes on.

Wisconsin is more politically complex than it can sometimes appear. The idea that the state can’t stomach a politician as progressive as Mr. Barnes is pure fiction. Liberal candidates have won 10 of the last 11 statewide elections. Like Mr. Barnes, Senator Tammy Baldwin was also accused of being too far left for Wisconsin when she first ran for statewide office a decade ago, and in 2018, she was re-elected by an almost 11-point margin. And while slogans like “Abolish ICE” and “Defund the Police” have become unpopular, the Black Lives Matter movement — which Mr. Barnes is a vocal supporter of — is still quite popular in Wisconsin, with a higher favorability rating than almost any state or national politician, according to the most recent Marquette University Law School poll.

What’s more, Mr. Barnes has chosen his moment wisely: The state Republican Party is in disarray, riven with bickering over their nominee for governor, mired in an endless battle over the results of the 2020 election and saddled with Mr. Johnson, whose chaotic and conspiratorial comments are already alienating swing voters, tanking his favorability rating to just 21 percent among moderates.

If Mr. Barnes can deliver a new kind of message that both speaks to the anxieties of younger generations and harnesses their hope, he has a fighting chance. Wisconsin is one of the nation’s most closely contested swing states, where elections are often decided by tenths of a point.

If Mr. Barnes can turn out just a few thousand voters with promises to enact big, bold changes in Washington, he may be able to pull off an upset, beating Mr. Johnson in November. Colleges will be seeing their most normal returns to campus since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and students could be more directly engaged in these midterms than they were in other pandemic elections, especially with heightened activism around abortion. And in Milwaukee, turnout has never reached the levels it did during Mr. Obama’s second presidential election. If Mr. Barnes can reach a sliver of young Black voters and turn them out to the polls, it could be enough to tilt the race in his favor.

Wisconsin can often be a bellwether of political change. The Tea Party wave of 2010 made the state a Republican testing ground for hard-right conservative policies that would soon go national. The 2018 election of Tony Evers was in many ways predictive of President Biden’s win two years later. A victory for a young Black millennial politician in this of all states could be a sign that a generational shift in American politics is well on its way.

Dan Shafer (@DanRShafer) is a reporter based in Milwaukee. He writes a newsletter about Wisconsin politics, The Recombobulation Area.

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