Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes has won the state’s Democratic Senate primary, NBC News projects, officially setting up a pivotal battleground state showdown with incumbent Republican Ron Johnson in a race that could determine control of the Senate.
Barnes' victory was all but certain after his three leading competitors exited the race in recent weeks. Barnes and groups supporting him have already targeted Johnson with a barrage of television and digital ads in anticipation of the November matchup.
Wisconsin’s Senate race will be one the closest and most intensely watched in the country, and Senate control could hinge on the outcome — it's one of just two Republican-held seats up for grabs in states Joe Biden won in 2020. The race is rated as a toss-up by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
A Marquette University Law School poll from June showed a tight hypothetical race between Barnes and Johnson. The survey — taken before many Democrats dropped out — showed Barnes leading Johnson, 46% to 44%, within the margin of sampling error.
The same poll found Wisconsin voters’ opinion of Johnson — a two-term incumbent — on the wane, with just 37% of registered Wisconsin voters having a favorable opinion of him, compared to 46% who had an unfavorable one.
Johnson has attracted controversy in recent years over a litany of false or questionable claims. He has downplayed the Jan. 6, 2021, riot, falsely claiming that there was “no violence” on the Senate side of the Capitol that day. He’s also attracted criticism for promoting the use of unproven Covid therapies like ivermectin and has claimed falsely that using mouthwash can protect against the virus.
Johnson, 67, who was elected to the Senate in 2010, had pledged to serve only two terms, but reversed course in January when he decided, after months of deliberation, to run for re-election again.
Democrats rolled out new ads attacking Johnson Tuesday morning, before the final votes were even cast for Barnes, trying to paint Johnson as out of touch.