MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes emerged Wednesday as the clear favorite in what had been a crowded Democratic field seeking to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, as his nearest rival dropped out and threw his support behind Barnes.
Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, who polls showed had been running tight with Barnes, explained his surprising move by saying Barnes had pulled ahead in recent weeks and there was no way he could catch him in the hotly contested primary for what is expected to be one of the most hard-fought Senate races this year.
“This wasn't something where I thought we lost," Lasry said, standing alongside Barnes outside the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee where the Bucks play. “I think Mandela won.”
The race in battleground Wisconsin, which Donald Trump narrowly won in 2016 but lost by a nearly equal number of votes in 2020, could determine which party holds majority control in the 50-50 Senate.
The move helps Democrats who want to avoid a nasty end to the primary and instead keep the focus on Johnson, according to University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Barry Burden.
“Circling around somebody, presumably Barnes, is one way to try to make the chances of winning in November greater,” Burden said.
Lasry said he decided to drop out after consulting on Tuesday night with Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin. This week, Barnes’ campaign released an internal poll that shows Barnes ahead of Lasry by 14 points.
“Look at the data, it just wasn’t there. Over the last seven, 10 days there was just a number of data points that showed Mandela’s support continued to grow," Lasry told The Associated Press. “When we realized there was no path forward, we wanted to make sure we did everything we could to put our party in the best position to beat Ron Johnson."
State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, who has trailed Barnes by double digits, vowed to remain in the contest along with other lesser-known candidates. On Monday, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson dropped out of the race and endorsed Barnes.
Even though Lasry and Nelson are ending their campaigns this week, both of their names will remain on the primary ballot. In-person absentee voting started Tuesday.
Lasry called Barnes a friend and said he looked forward to helping him beat Johnson. Barnes thanked Lasry for not running a negative campaign and said that unity will help Democrats take on Johnson.
“I know it’s going to be tough,” Barnes said. “It’s going to be difficult, an uphill battle. But I know it’ll be that much easier because we’re in this together.”
Barnes, who is Black, was born and raised in Milwaukee. He served two terms in the state Legislature before being elected lieutenant governor in 2018. Barnes opted against seeking a second term with Gov. Tony Evers to instead run for Senate.
Barnes, 35, contrasted himself with Lasry in the primary, emphasizing his middle class upbringing as the son of a public school teacher and factory worker, both union members. Barnes paid no income tax and was on the state’s Medicaid program while running for lieutenant governor in 2018.
He has secured some big-name liberal endorsements in the primary, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Citing those endorsements, Wisconsin Republican Party Executive Director Mark Jefferson said that as the primary approaches “Mandela Barnes will speak out of both sides of his mouth to convince voters that he is a moderate.” But he said Barnes will have to own President Joe Biden’s agenda, which Jefferson said is to blame for high inflation, rising crime and a weakened education system.
Lasry, 35, already had spent more than $12.3 million of his own money on the race. He had spent three times as much as Barnes through June, mostly on TV ads.
Barnes reported raising $2.1 million between April and June of this year, bringing his total to date to $6.1 million. It was the most of any Democratic candidate in the Wisconsin race who wasn't self-funding, but his three-month total paled against the $7 million Johnson reported.
Lasry was born in New York City and moved to Milwaukee in 2014 after his billionaire father was part of a team that bought the NBA's Bucks. Lasry served as an executive vice president for the team and has touted his connection to the 2021 championship Bucks, frequently mentioning their title run and employing union workers to build the stadium where the team plays.
He also played a pivotal role in landing the 2020 Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee. The event was moved online due to the coronavirus pandemic.