MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes won the Democratic Senate primary 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 as toss-ups in November.
Barnes contrasted his middle-class upbringing with the millionaire Johnson, who he said caters to special interests and wealthy donors.
“Wisconsin deserves to be represented by leaders who have a firsthand understanding of the challenges they’re facing and their hopes for the future,” Barnes said in a statement Tuesday. He would be Wisconsin’s first Black senator if elected.
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.
Voters also were choosing a Republican nominee for Wisconsin governor who could reshape how elections are conducted in the marquee battleground, where Trump is still pressing to overturn his 2020 loss and backing candidates he sees as allies.
Trump has endorsed businessman Tim Michels, a self-described outsider who has put $12 million into his own campaign, against former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, who has support from former Vice President Mike Pence and ex-Gov. Scott Walker. Both candidates falsely claim the 2020 election was rigged, though Kleefisch has said decertifying the results is “not constitutional,” while Michels said “everything will be on the table.”
The race to face Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is another proxy war between Trump and Pence, one-time partners now pursuing different futures for the Republican Party. They also backed opposing GOP rivals in primaries in Arizona and Georgia — swing states that, like Wisconsin, are expected to be critical in the 2024 presidential race, when both men could be on the ballot.
Trump also has backed a little-known challenger to the state’s most powerful Republican, state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who has rejected the former president’s pressure to decertify the 2020 results.
Tuesday’s outcomes have far-reaching consequences beyond Wisconsin, a state that is almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats and where 2022 will be seen as a bellwether for the 2024 presidential race.
The person elected governor this fall will be in office for the presidential election and will be able to sign or veto changes to election laws passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature. The next governor and U.S. senator also may sway decisions on issues from abortion to education and taxes.
“We’re a 50-50 state and so every race in Wisconsin, just by definition, is going to be decided by a few percentage points one way or another,” said former Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat. “And those few percentage points in Wisconsin may well determine what the course of the nation is in the coming years.”
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