Mandela Barnes (left) and Tony Evers greeted reporters after breakfasting together in Madison Wednesday.

Mandela Barnes faced a competitive primary in his first bid for statewide office. The 31-year-old former state representative was up against a capable rival in Sheboygan businessman Kurt Kober, who had a 3-1 fundraising advantage over Barnes going into the final weeks before the Aug. 14 primary for lieutenant governor.

Yet Barnes won with 68 percent of the vote, the highest level of support secured by any Democrat running in a competitive statewide primary Tuesday. That’s an impressive finish, and it was truly a statewide win. Barnes swept his hometown of Milwaukee, where he won 78 percent of the vote, along with the progressive stronghold of Dane County, where he took 76 percent. At the same time, Barnes was maintaining a 2-1 advantage in many of Wisconsin’s small towns and rural counties.

What worked for Barnes? Like a number of so-called “down-ballot” contenders in races across the country this year, the veteran community organizer invited Wisconsinites to reimagine the lieutenant governor’s office. Instead of accepting the notion that the lieutenant governor is simply a “sidekick” who might inherit the state’s governorship if the top job were to be vacated, Barnes offered an activist vision for the post. He said he wanted to fight for free two-year college and debt-free four-year college, a BadgerCare public option to expand access to health care, and a plan to encourage citizen entrepreneurs to form employee-owned cooperatives. “Company profits belong in workers' paychecks, not CEO bonuses,” argued the candidate, who proudly participated in the Wisconsin uprising of 2011 and never hesitated to highlight his support for the unions Walker attacked.

This progressive populist vision earned Barnes a statewide vote total that in some parts of Wisconsin rivaled the combined total for the top three finishers in the Democratic gubernatorial race. Those numbers suggest the political strength that Barnes brings to the ticket headed by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, who won Tuesday’s eight-way gubernatorial primary by a comfortable margin.

Under Wisconsin law, Evers and Barnes will now run together against Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch. Like Barnes, Kleefisch is an engaging candidate who can generate enthusiasm among the party faithful. But Walker has rarely treated her as a political partner.

Evers, on the other hand, is signaling that he wants to align with and empower Barnes. Linking a 66-year-old statewide elected official who has roots in rural Wisconsin (Plymouth) with a 31-year-old community organizer who has roots in the African-American neighborhoods of the state’s great urban center is smart politics.

But this is about more than combining experience, energy and demographics. Evers and Barnes share values and ideals. And Evers has a history, through many years of service at the Department of Public Instruction, of entrusting younger officials with major responsibilities.

This makes the Evers-Barnes ticket more than just a credible vote-getting operation. It’s possible to imagine Evers and Barnes working together as the sort of governing team that a governor and lieutenant governor should be — but that, in Wisconsin and most other states, rarely are.

Overcoming the deep divisions fostered by Scott Walker’s “divide-and-conquer” approach to governing, and getting state government focused on serving all of Wisconsin, is going to be an all-hands-on-deck project. Tony Evers is a smart enough man to know that he is lucky to have Mandela Barnes at his side.

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

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