MILWAUKEE - Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes won the Democratic Senate primary on Tuesday and will face two-term Republican Sen. Ron Johnson in what is expected to be one of the country’s most competitive races for control of the U.S. Senate.
Barnes’ top rivals dropped out of the race late last month and backed the former legislator, a sign of Democrats’ intense focus on defeating Johnson, who is one of former President Donald Trump’s most vocal supporters. The Senate is currently split 50-50, with Democrats relying on the vice president to break ties, and the Wisconsin contest is one of the few races seen a toss-up in November.
While there were other candidates in the race, political experts said Barnes was the front-runner in the primary.
In his victory speech in Milwaukee, Barnes emphasized his middle-class background and upbringing while casting Johnson as "self-serving" and "an out-of-touch politician" who cares only about special interests and wealthy donors.
"It is time for a change, everybody," said Barnes, who would be Wisconsin's first Black senator if elected. "It’s time for us to be represented by somebody who shares our experiences."
Johnson called Barnes the "most radical left candidate" Democrats could have chosen.
"This is a contest between radical left socialism versus freedom and prosperity," he said.
Barnes, 35, is a Milwaukee native. Campaign ads show Barnes highlighted his middle-class upbringing. Barnes' parents appeared in his campaign ads. Prominent Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker threw support behind Barnes.
On July 30, Barnes received the Democratic Party of Wisconsin's endorsement, the party's chair announced.
"Mandela has been a tireless champion for the issues that matter to Wisconsin’s working families," Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chair Ben Wikler said in a statement. "As Senator, he’ll continue the fight to grow our middle class and build a more just and more prosperous Wisconsin."
The race for Senate already was seen as a fight between Johnson and Barnes, who would be Wisconsin's first Black senator if elected.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Mandela Barnes' victory statement
"Only in Wisconsin would it be possible for the son of a third shift auto worker and a public school teacher who grew up on 26th and Locust to go on to become Lt. Governor and the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate. Growing up, I didn’t see a lot of politicians that looked like me or had my lived experiences. I didn’t see a lot of candidates who had lived a working class life. Frankly, I still don’t.
"I don’t fit the bill of a normal politician, and it took me a little while to understand that that’s a good thing. Because the way we’ll change Washington is by changing the people we send to Washington. And that work starts today.
"Ron Johnson has spent his decade in Washington serving the special interests who donate millions to his campaign while he calls to repeal the Affordable Care Act and slash Social Security funding. Plain and simple: if it doesn’t support his wealthy donors or his own self-interests, you can’t count on Ron Johnson to support it.
"Wisconsin deserves to be represented by leaders who have a firsthand understanding of the challenges they’re facing and their hopes for the future. This isn’t about red or blue, or left or right. It’s about who’s been on top and the rest of us who Ron Johnson has consistently been left at the bottom. I’m so grateful to accept the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate. Together, we’re going to move forward and fight for the better future we deserve."