Mandela Barnes concedes to Ron Johnson after losing by 1 percentage point

Barnes and supporters reflect on campaign at Milwaukee’s Sherman Phoenix

By: - November 9, 2022 6:23 pm
Mandela Barnes speaks to supporters in Milwaukee as he concedes the race for U.S. Senate. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Mandela Barnes speaks to supporters in Milwaukee as he concedes the race for U.S. Senate. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Over a year ago Wisconsin’s Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes announced his campaign for U.S. senator at the Sherman Phoenix Marketplace, a hub of Black small businesses in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood. It was here Barnes chose to end his campaign Wednesday afternoon, conceding to Republican Sen. Ron Johnson. Barnes was joined by a crowd of supporters including his parents, Democratic leaders, community organizers and supporters.

“Obviously this is not the speech that I wanted to give,” Barnes told the crowd, “but I still cannot thank you all enough for being there with me every step of the way.” The race between Barnes and Johnson, who is going on to serve a third term as senator, ended by a tight margin. Johnson garnered 50.5% of the vote while Barnes attained 49.5% of the vote. During his concession speech, Barnes said that his campaign performed better than many gave it credit for. “A lot of people counted us out more than once,” said Barnes, “I think about the Marquette poll two, three weeks ago that said we were down six points. A lot of people gave up on us. But ya’ll didn’t give up.”

Supporters of Mandela Barnes gather at the Sherman Phoenix in Milwaukee. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Supporters of Mandela Barnes gather at the Sherman Phoenix in Milwaukee. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

As Barnes spoke, tears streamed down the faces of audience members including  passionate young voters, voting outreach workers and  seasoned activists who had hardened themselves for the potential outcome of the election. Ultimately, Barnes was defeated by a margin of just over 27,000 votes. Nevertheless, Barnes feels the campaign demonstrated how a diverse coalition can put up a fight against opponents with superior financial backing. “You showed the progress that we make when we build a coalition. When we reach across the aisle, when we reach across communities, think about the things that unite us rather than the things that divide us. When we stand and we say that we deserve better and that together we’ll fight for it, it’ll get better.”

One point not lost on anyone in the crowd was the amount of spending that flooded the field between Barnes and Johnson. Spending by the parties reached $144 million  for advertising in Wisconsin’s U.S. Senate general election. About $77 million of that was spent by Republicans, outpacing Democrats who spent $67 million.

Outside groups spent $52.8 million attacking Barnes and $37.7 million attacking Johnson, according to the campaign finance watchdog group Open Secrets.

Wisconsin Senate candidates Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis) and Lt. Gov Mandela Barnes in met for their first debate in Milwaukee on Oct. 7, sponsored by the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association | Screenshot via YouTube
Wisconsin Senate candidates Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis) and Lt. Gov Mandela Barnes in their first debate in Milwaukee on Oct. 7, sponsored by the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association | Screenshot via YouTube

Congresswoman Gwen Moore emphasized that despite the massive spending, Barnes lost by just over 27,000 votes, “after multi-millions of dollars of spending of money from big pharma, and the fossil fuel industry, and god knows where, because it’s all dark money,” said Moore. She stressed that the legacy of the Barnes campaign is one of confronting that sort of spending.

The ads attacking Barnes accused him of being soft on crime, described him as “a different kind of Democrat” and “too dangerous for Wisconsin.” Some showed  scenes of shoot-outs and other graphic crimes alongside Barnes’ face. Barnes, who is African American, was also depicted as having a darker skin tone than he does in life. Community groups denounced the ads for having what they felt were racist overtones.

Moore recalled that she was initially reluctant to support Barnes when he first approached her. “I thought about all the reasons that I just shouldn’t, couldn’t ought to be doing it,” said Moore. “There’s no way that I can just lay my values down for political expediency,” said Moore. “And I’m so glad, knowing what I know right this moment, that I did what I did.”

Mandela Barnes hugs allies and loved ones as he prepares to concede the race for U.S. Senate. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Mandela Barnes hugs allies and loved ones as he prepares to concede the race for U.S. Senate. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Disappointment was palpable in the air hanging over the crowd. “It’s heartbreaking,” Milwaukee County Supervisor Ryan Clancy told Wisconsin Examiner. Clancy was an early endorser of Barnes. “It’s heartbreaking because it’s so close. It’s one of those elections where I know everyone here is looking at it, saying, ‘What if I knocked on one more door, or what if I made one more phone call?’ It’s a rough one.” Clancy added, “He was clearly a threat to the status quo.”

Former State Rep. Jonathan Brostoff, who will now fill one of Milwaukee’s vacant aldermanic districts, was both disappointed and optimistic about the future for Democrats. “I think we outperformed going against the headwinds,” Brostoff told Wisconsin Examiner. “Usually in Wisconsin, the party in charge gets pretty severe backlash statewide. And we not only held against that, but we kept the governor’s seat despite a ludicrous amount of outside money spent. And Mandela coming so close against such a long-term incumbent that had so much money coming in — all things considered, I’m pretty amazed.”

Mandela Barnes speaks to supporters in Milwaukee as he concedes the race for U.S. Senate. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Mandela Barnes speaks to supporters in Milwaukee as he concedes the race for U.S. Senate. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Former State Rep. David Bowen said he was also proud of Barnes’ performance. “Clearly the winds were not at his back,” said Bowen, adding that inflation and the economy weighed heavily on the minds of voters. “But for him to come so close is a testament to how hard he worked. But it also demonstrates how damaging the imbalance in attack-ad spending in the race was. … So they were able to define Mandela and what should have been a clean record. Those attack ads made Mandela look like a criminal.” Bowen noted that attack ads against Evers did not take on the same tone as those against Barnes.

Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera Action was disappointed like many others at Barnes’ defeat, and felt the attack ads against him made a dent. During voter outreach, she said, her organization educated  people about the voting process while also addressing disinformation in the ads against Barnes. For Neumann-Ortiz, now is a time to reflect and “reimagine” how to conduct voter education and mobilize communities. In Milwaukee, there were 40,000 fewer votes cast this week in Milwaukee than in the general election in 2018.

Mandela Barnes speaks to supporters in Milwaukee as he concedes the race for U.S. Senate. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Mandela Barnes speaks to supporters in Milwaukee as he concedes the race for U.S. Senate. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

But Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Madison) noted the high level of  voter turnout and voter enthusiasm in Dane County. “He was able to galvanize people,” Johnson told Wisconsin Examiner. “We saw first-time voters coming out and they weren’t being dragged there by their parents. They were coming out on their own to cast their vote.” Johnson added, “If we engage more in helping to get the word out, if everybody does their part …we can continue to see this movement mobilize … we can continue to see everyday, ordinary people get out and cast a ballot.”

“We didn’t get over the finish line this time,” Barnes concluded in his concession speech. “But I know this movement that has meant so much to all of us will keep going. I still believe that better is possible, and I am in this for Wisconsin. Now is not the time for us to tune out. Now is the time for us to double down. To show up like we’ve never shown up before, and make sure that Ron Johnson and every political leader knows they answer to every person in Wisconsin – not just the people who voted for them. Together, we’re going to organize for better, we’re going to fight for better, and one day soon, we’re going to achieve better.”

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets. He was also featured in the 2018 documentary The Chase Key, and was the recipient of the Sierra Club Great Waters Group 2021 Environmental Hero of the Year award. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council also awarded Holmes its 2021-2022 Media Openness Award for using the open records laws for investigative journalism. Holmes was also a finalist in the 2021 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards alongside the rest of the Wisconsin Examiner's staff. The Silver, or second place, award for Best Online Coverage of News was awarded to Holmes and his colleague Henry Redman for an investigative series into how police responded to the civil unrest and protests in Kenosha during 2020. Holmes was also awarded the Press Club's Silver (second-place) award for Public Service Journalism for articles focusing on police surveillance in Wisconsin.

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