Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes won the Democratic Senate primary on 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 a toss-up in November.
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.
The primary comes a day after FBI agents searched Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate as part of an investigation into whether he took classified records from the White House to his Florida residence, two people familiar with the matter told The Associated Press.
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.”
Elsewhere Tuesday, voters in Vermont — the only state to never have a woman in its congressional delegation — chose a woman, Becca Balint, as the Democratic nominee for the state’s lone House seat. She is favored in the race to replace Rep. Peter Welch, who won the Democratic nomination for the Senate seat long held by Patrick Leahy, who is retiring. In Connecticut, Republicans were picking an opponent to face two-term Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal. And Minnesota Republicans chose Dr. Scott Jensen, a COVID-19 vaccine skeptic endorsed by the state GOP, to face Gov. Tim Walz.
But the most-watched races are in Wisconsin, where Trump has kept up his pressure campaign to cancel President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory. Biden won by nearly 21,000 votes, four years after Trump also narrowly won the state by roughly the same margin. The 2020 outcome has been upheld in two partial recounts, a nonpartisan audit, a review by a conservative law firm and multiple lawsuits.
Both Michels and Kleefisch have said overturning the 2020 election results is not a priority. But they have said they would dismantle the bipartisan commission that runs Wisconsin elections and would support prohibitions on voters having someone else turn in their absentee ballots, as well as ballot drop boxes located anywhere other than staffed clerk offices.
Evers has made voting and elections a focus of his own campaign, telling voters he’s the only candidate who will defend democracy and “we are that close to not having our vote count in the state of Wisconsin.”
Kleefisch is a former TV reporter who served with Walker for two terms, including when he effectively ended collective bargaining for most public employees in the state in 2011, drawing huge protests and a failed recall attempt. She says she is the best prepared to win statewide in November and to enact conservative priorities, including investing more in police, expanding school choice programs and implementing a flat income tax.
During a campaign stop with Kleefisch last week, Pence said no other gubernatorial candidate in the U.S. is “more capable, more experienced, or a more proven conservative.”
Michels is co-owner of Wisconsin’s largest construction company and has touted his work to build his family’s business. He lost the 2004 Senate race to Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, and has been a major donor to GOP politicians.
At a rally on Friday, Trump praised Michels as an “incredible success story.” He criticized Kleefisch as part of the “failed establishment” and also took aim at Vos. He told supporters that Michels will win the primary “easily” and that he’s the better choice to defeat Evers.
Michels pledged that “we are going to have election integrity here in Wisconsin.” He also said he will bring “law and order” back to Wisconsin, criticized Evers’ handling of schools and blamed Biden for rising prices.
Voter Gary Steinbrecher, 62, said he cast his ballot Tuesday for Kleefisch because she opposes abortion and has “been around for a long time.” He also thinks she has the best chance of defeating Evers.
“I think she would appeal to the suburban women voters more than the other candidates,” said Steinbrecher, who is semi-retired.
Franklin Szpot, 42, voted for Michels. He said he appreciated that Michels is a business owner and that he served in the U.S. Army. Szpot also liked the candidate’s “to the point” commercials.
“It just seems like he is a no-nonsense kind of guy and that’s the kind of person we need in office right now,” he said.
GOP state Rep. Tim Ramthun is also making a long-shot bid for governor, and has made rescinding Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes for Biden the centerpiece of his campaign.
The candidate Trump endorsed to take on Vos, Adam Steen, has said he would decertify Biden’s victory.
The race for Senate already was seen as a fight between Johnson and Barnes, who would be Wisconsin’s first Black senator if elected.