I don’t know if Mandela Barnes will defeat Senator Ron Johnson or not. It seems right now that it would be a bit of an upset, but not a completely shocking result. If you step back and think about it, though, Wisconsin is 87 percent white. Even if Barnes, an African-American, falls a little short, if nearly half of the state’s citizens vote for him, that’s something positive.
But then I also remember that not too long ago, Wisconsin was represented in the U.S. Senate by two Jewish men (Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold) despite there being only 42,000 Jews (less than one percent of the population) living in the state. Currently, in addition to Sen. Johnson, the state is represented by Sen. Tammy Baldwin who is openly lesbian. I don’t have statistics, but that definitely makes her a small minority.
It seems to me like Wisconsinites are not hung up on voting for people who look like them, worship like them, or have family structures like them. They get past that and vote on how think candidates will represent them, and that’s to their credit.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of racism in Wisconsin. It doesn’t mean anti-Semitism is uncommon or that LGBT people don’t suffer violence and discrimination. It just means that there’s a refreshing amount of open-mindedness and tolerance in the state’s political culture, as reflected by the results.
At least historically, people there aren’t voting tribally in sufficient numbers to turn every election into a battle about identity. It’s not the Deep South. But politicians like Ron Johnson are doing everything thing to change that. They want to Southify the North so that whites vote as whites, and they vote as conservatives.
Democrats can walk right into that trap if they’re not careful, but it looks to me like Barnes is savvy enough to resist that temptation. His campaign isn’t centered around racially polarizing issues.
But Johnson is doing his best to say that it is:
In his stump speech during the past several days, Johnson has repeated some of Barnes’s past comments about systemic racism and said the Democratic nominee has shown “contempt” for America. “That’s what he thinks about you. Literally, do you want him representing you?” Johnson asked a crowd in Black River Falls.
“No!” several people yelled.
Johnson continued: “Why does he want to represent people that he views are just systemically racist?”
Johnson has run ads that darken Barnes’ face and write his name in graffiti.
I hope Wisconsinites look at this behavior and ask themselves why they’d vote for Johnson if that’s what he thinks about them and their racial beliefs and prejudices. Because it’s Johnson who is working on the operating assumption that the state’s electorate is so bigoted that they’ll respond positively to his messaging. He’s the one who thinks the state is so systemically racist that he can tap into it and win reelection.
That would almost definitely work in most of the Deep South, but it might not work in the Upper Midwest.