Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes speaks at his US Senate campaign launch event July 20, 2021, in Milwaukee. (Photo by Olivia Stern)
Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes speaks at his US Senate campaign launch event July 20, 2021, in Milwaukee. (Photo by Olivia Stern)

The announcement also casts an uncertain shadow on the 2022 governor’s race, as Gov. Tony Evers needs to find a new running mate.

Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes on Tuesday officially launched his campaign for US Senate, entering a crowded field of Democrats hoping to unseat Republican Sen. Ron Johnson.

“Together, we can build a future that we all know is possible, where the doors of opportunity are wide open for anyone with a dream and the passion to carry it forward,” Barnes said in a campaign launch speech delivered at Sherman Phoenix, an entrepreneurial hub for small Black-owner businesses in Milwaukee.

Prior to Tuesday’s formal announcement, Barnes had avoided questions for months about running for US Senate, even as it became clear he was gearing up for a run. At the end of June, he hired a political adviser; he began fundraising earlier this month; and last weekend, he teased on Twitter that he was “Ready to run!” after participating in a 5K race in Madison.

On Monday, Barnes’ campaign said there would be a “big announcement” Tuesday, but Barnes scooped his own launch event Tuesday morning with a campaign launch video posted on his social media pages and an updated website to reflect the Senate run.

Gov. Tony Evers released a statement on Barnes’ entrance into the race, saying that he would “support any decision Mandela made about how best to serve the people of Wisconsin,” but he made no explicit endorsement. 

Now that Barnes is entering the Senate race, Evers has no running mate for lieutenant governor. The lieutenant governor’s primary race is separate from the gubernatorial ballot, so if there are multiple candidates in August 2022 Evers will be on the November general election ballot fighting for a second term alongside whomever wins that contest.

Many elected officials showed up to attend the press conference, from school board members to state legislators. 

RELATED: Breaking Down Democrats’ Crowded 2022 Senate Field in Wisconsin

Rev. Willie Briscoe and former state Rep. Sandy Pasch (D-Milwaukee) introduced Barnes. Briscoe spoke of his long relationship with Barnes’ parents and how he worked with Barnes during his time at MICAH, a Milwaukee-based interfaith coalition that advocates for social justice. Pasch was one of Barnes’ colleagues during his tenure in the State Assembly and said that Barnes “wasn’t afraid to challenge the status quo of his own party.”

In his campaign launch speech, the lieutenant governor made several general statements supporting issues like improving education, expanding access to health care, combating climate change, protecting voting rights, and implementing gun control. He also explicitly stated, “We shouldn’t have to pay for education in the first place,” and said healthcare is a basic human right and that “your health insurance shouldn’t be tied to your job.”

Though he doesn’t have any specific policies posted on his website yet, his campaign video emphasized his support for creating jobs, making Wisconsin first in education, protecting family farms, lowering healthcare costs, fighting climate change, and protecting voting rights. 

Gov. Tony Evers released a statement on Barnes’ entrance into the race, saying he would “support any decision Mandela made about how best to serve the people of Wisconsin.” However, Evers made no explicit endorsement. 

Barnes’ entrance to the Senate race also leaves Evers with no running mate for lieutenant governor. The lieutenant governor’s primary race is separate from the gubernatorial ballot, so if there are multiple candidates in August 2022, Evers will be on the November general election ballot fighting for a second term alongside whomever wins that contest.

A Milwaukee native, Barnes served two terms representing the 11th Assembly District from 2013-17. He also unsuccessfully challenged fellow Democrat Lena Taylor for her state Senate seat in 2016. Barnes was elected lieutenant governor in 2018 after winning a primary against Sheboygan businessman Kurt Kober. Barnes ran on issues that included funding free two-year college and debt-free four-year college, creating affordable healthcare options, investing in renewable energy, and raising the minimum wage. 

During his time in the Legislature, Barnes authored bills aimed at criminal justice reform, decriminalizing marijuana, establishing gun control measures, and making technical colleges free. He earlier worked for various political campaigns and in Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s office, and he has been involved in a number of community organizations within the greater Milwaukee area. 

During his run for lieutenant governor in 2018, state Sen. Chris Larson endorsed Barnes. Now they will be opponents facing off in the Democratic Senate primary, along with six others in the race and another strongly considering running. Barnes’ 2018 campaign manager Justin Bielinski is now managing Larson’s run for Senate, and he has made clear his support for Larson over Barnes. 

He has pledged to not accept any donations from corporate political action committees (PACs), but did not rule out other PACs. In July 2020, Barnes’ campaign was fined $1,652 by the Wisconsin Ethics Commission for accepting too many in-kind donations from the Wisconsin Working Families Party political action committee.