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John Nichols: What Mandela Barnes knows about Wisconsin
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John Nichols: What Mandela Barnes knows about Wisconsin

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Mandela Barnes launched his U.S. Senate bid with a video that featured the lieutenant governor jogging through the streets of Milwaukee. That was no surprise. Barnes has deep roots in Wisconsin’s largest city, which also happens to be home to the biggest base of Democratic voters in a state where he hopes to win a crowded Democratic primary and then take on scandal-plagued Republican Sen. Ron Johnson.

But the video also featured Barnes on a dairy farm. No surprise there, either.

When he ran for lieutenant governor in 2018, he spent a good deal of time campaigning in farm country and small towns. Voters responded well to the attention. Despite the fact that he was outspent in the Democratic primary, Barnes won virtually all of the state’s 72 counties. In November of that year, the work Barnes and Evers did to build up Democratic support in non-urban areas was essential to their narrow win.

Barnes’ demonstrated ability to secure votes in rural and small-town regions is an important part of what makes him a consequential contender for the Senate nomination. He is not the only Democratic candidate who has run well in rural Wisconsin. Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson has repeatedly been elected — as a Bernie Sanders-aligned Democrat — in a historically Republican region of the state that includes many small manufacturing towns and cities. And most of the party’s 2022 contenders have begun making the rounds at county fairs and rural Democratic gatherings.

They get that a whole-state strategy is key to winning Wisconsin.

While it is certainly true that the Democratic strongholds of Milwaukee and Madison provide a lot of the votes in Democratic primaries, and serve as the base for Democrats running in November, Wisconsin is a state with rural progressive and populist traditions where Democrats still have the potential to run well in farm country. In 2008, Democrat Barack Obama won 45% of the small-town and rural vote. That was more than enough support, when combined with his strong urban support, to secure a big win. Obama won almost half the state's counties in 2012, as did Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Tammy Baldwin.

In 2016, however, almost two dozen Wisconsin counties that had voted for Obama and Baldwin backed Trump and, in many cases, Johnson. Hillary Clinton won just 35% of the rural vote, losing counties that had voted for George McGovern, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, as well as Obama.

In 2018, Democrats won a number of those counties back — in an election that saw Baldwin win, along with Gov. Tony Evers, Barnes, and state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, another contender for the party's 2022 U.S. Senate nomination. In the 2020 presidential race, Biden improved on the Democratic numbers from 2016 just enough to carry the state. But there is still work to do.

That's something Barnes knows. And it will serve him well as a candidate in the primary and, if he faces Johnson in November of 2022, against an incumbent who has shown little interest in the challenges facing family farmers and rural communities.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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