Republicans’ Newest Best Practice for Defeating Trump: Make It Not About Trump


Mandela Barnes used to appear on MSNBC rather frequently. When Wisconsin’s 33-year-old lieutenant governor took to the liberal media to express his outrage after a police shooting in Kenosha, his popularity peaked in late summer 2020. The way that Barnes, a young, charismatic, and unapologetic Black guy, denounced law enforcement’s narrative of how one of their own shot an unarmed Black man named Jacob Blake left a lasting impression. On the network, we were told not to believe what our eyes were showing us. If we were held accountable for our actions, we wouldn’t be facing the racial reckoning we are now.

It was a time when Democratic Senate candidates were regulars on MSNBC, delivering leftist soundbites and collecting millions of dollars in contributions as payment for opposing a despised Trump ally. Two years later, Barnes is now a Democrat running for the Senate. However, since announcing his candidacy, he has only made a few brief appearances on the liberal cable network. The focus is on Wisconsin, he argues, but there is a moment to broadcast the message on MSNBC’s loudspeaker. It’s crucial that I speak with people here as much as possible.

Certainly a platitude, but at least it is based on the reality of his campaign’s approach to unseating Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.). Instead, Barnes has amplified the standard, occasionally cheesy, campaign fare: Oshkosh union halls, Milwaukee gun violence roundtables, and a cross-state Barns for Barnes trip to discuss the challenges faced by family farms are just a few of the activities taking place.

Barnes has every chance to run in 2020 like the most prominent Democrats: A historically crucial state to win; a notoriously despicable opponent; and a rising star quality that has long prompted comparisons to Barack Obama. But instead of going down that path, he’s choosing one that reflects how his party is approaching 2022. He does this in an effort to learn from the Democratic Party’s missteps in 2020, when it overplayed in unwinnable elections, lost races it could have won, and focused exclusively on Trump.

Despite being possibly the most Trumpiest senator, Barnes doesn’t spend much time connecting Johnson to former president Donald Trump or pursuing his bizarre conspiracies (even though theyre some of the wildest uttered by a sitting lawmaker). Instead, he is fighting Johnson the same way that Obama defeated Mitt Romney: by portraying Johnson as an out-of-touch plutocrat who is working against everyone else on behalf of the wealthy and drawing comparisons to his own middle-class upbringing in Milwaukee. Barnes and Katie Rosenberg, the mayor of Wausau, had matching endorsement tattoos that were selected at random from the parlor’s gumball machine and broadcast theanticson TikTok, so it’s not quite accurate to claim that his pitch is traditional.

Even with the anti-Trump wave blowing in their favor, Democratic Senate candidates from the previous election were unable to turn their hundreds of millions of dollars into victories. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was branded a flip-flopper by South Carolina’s Jaime Harrison, who barely outperformed a generic Democrat while setting fundraising records. Sara Gideon of Maine was unable to persuade voters that Susan Collins had improved under Trump, and she finished up with $15 million in uncommitted funds despite Collins winning by almost nine points. Then there is Kentucky’s Amy McGrath, a fighter pilot who spent more than $90 million to turn her 2018 House defeat against Minority Leader Mitch McConnell into a Senate defeat in 2020.

Democrats learned this lesson the hard way: if some of their rising star MSNBC candidates hadn’t failed catastrophically with the electorate, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema wouldn’t be on Biden’s agenda. Additionally, they will need to forsake the Trump-centric strategy that failed them in 2020 if they hope to shift GOP seats in 2022.

Start your exodus from Trump’s fever swamp.

Democrats’ top Senate objectives for 2022 all use Barnes’ method. Even though Dr. Mehmet Oz is himself a sort of reality TV star supported by Trump, John Fetterman, another tattooed lieutenant governor, has made his run against Oz about Oz being a carpetbagger who actually lives in New Jersey. Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.), the GOP candidate for North Carolina’s open Senate seat, voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election results and made a baseless claim that computerized voting machines might be connected to liberal billionaire George Soros, one of the rights movement’s favorite bogeymen. But in her campaign for the open Senate seat in North Carolina, Cheri Beasley, a former chief judge of the North Carolina Supreme Court, has painted the Trump-backed congressman as a pay-to-play D.C. insider.

Before they knew which of the dozen contenders who entered the contest would be their nominee, national Democrats had Johnson categorized. When Johnson declared in January that he will run for a third term, Democrats almost immediately countered with a TV campaign. The advertisement made no reference to Johnson’s ludicrous statements on COVID, the January 6th uprising, or the climate change (caused by sunspots, instigated byfake Trump supporters) (could be treated by gargling mouthwash, astatementthat drew condemnation from the manufacturer of Listerine). Instead, it emphasized Johnson’s efforts to give megadonors a tax relief while asking viewers: Has Ron Johnson been looking out for you, or for himself?

According to a staff member with the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, the reasoning was simple: Johnson should be the subject of a referendum in this campaign due to his role as the primary author of the 2017 GOP tax legislation, his persistent support for repealing the Affordable Care Act, and his dismal polling results. Whoever Democratic voters wanted would be the party’s spokesperson for that message. In contrast to previous elections, the party did not favor one Senate candidate over another.

Enter Jesse Mandela Barnes, who shares a name with South Africa’s first Black president. Barnes, the son of a union steelworker and a schoolteacher, was raised in a middle-class household in one of Wisconsin’s most underprivileged zip codes. He attended historically Black Alabama A


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