Mandela Barnes: A new PAC and ‘26,000 what-ifs’

With help from Jesse Naranjo, Jesús Rodríguez, Jessica Piper, Ella Creamer and Teresa Wiltz 

What up, Recast family! Freshman Sen. John Fetterman is recovering after a health scare this week but doctors rule out another stroke, a Southwest Airlines exec apologizes to a Senate panel for the holiday meltdown stranding thousands of passengers and it’s Super Bowl weekend!  First, though, a former top Senate candidate launches a new political action committee to help nontraditional candidates run and win in upcoming elections. 

Mandela Barnes, Wisconsin’s former lieutenant governor who lost his bid to become the state’s first Black senator by a single percentage point, is not ready to walk away from politics just yet.

This week the 36-year-old Barnes launched a political action committee aimed at helping elevate candidates typically ignored by the Democratic Party’s institutional donor class. The Long Run PAC’s mission is to support candidates who are young, candidates of color and LGBTQ+ Democrats “who are breaking the mold and positioned to win crucial races all over America.”

While there’s no set dollar amount his PAC is looking to raise, it could begin endorsing candidates as early as this summer.

Still haunted by his narrow loss to incumbent GOP Sen. Ron Johnson last cycle, Barnes says the campaign left him with “26,000 what-ifs” — citing roughly the number of votes he lost by. This lingering sting is made all the more painful because for a time Barnes actually led in some polls.

Barnes, a prolific fundraiser, hauled in more than $40 million from grassroots supporters last cycle, including approximately 390,000 online donors via ActBlue. He is hoping to use that considerable donor list and fundraising prowess to help a new generation of candidates build credible campaigns to flip seats in Congress and statehouses across the country.

I talk with him about this, plus his thoughts on Democrats pouring resources into other swing races, such as Georgia, instead of focusing on his campaign, and the blockbuster end of the NBA trade deadline, which closed Thursday.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

THE RECAST: The national political calendar in 2023 is not jam-packed as far as elections are concerned. So, what convinced you that now is the time to launch a political action committee?

BARNES: Honestly, why not?

Coming off of a very tough election cycle, it was important to look at the coalition we put together, the energy, the momentum. It just wouldn’t make sense to let it all fall by the wayside.

And it may not be a jam-packed election cycle across the country, but in Wisconsin we have one of the most consequential elections coming up this April with the [state] supreme court race. We want to be able to keep our supporters, volunteers engaged in this process, knowing what's at stake. And I’ve said before, what I was fighting for was much bigger than myself for my own campaign. And the Long Run PAC is to keep that energy going.

THE RECAST: Tell me a little bit about the name. How did you land on it?

BARNES: The Long Run serves a dual purpose. Running is something I do all the time anyway and there are so many similarities between physically running and running a campaign.

They're both grueling, taxing — it takes a lot of prep work. It’s that prep that you’ve got to do to get yourself in the best position to be competitive. My campaign may not have gone the way that I wanted it to, but it's about making sure that in the long run, we are in a much better place than we're in now.

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THE RECAST: So how will your PAC help change that dynamic? You certainly defied expectations, especially when you launched in July 2021 in a race that wasn’t expected to be favorable for Democrats. But you fell short by around 26,000 votes.

BARNES: Even as the sitting lieutenant governor, people counted me out of the primary. We at least want to be able to support financially where we can; we also want to help raise the profile of candidates, we also want to be able to bring attention to a lot of these races and candidates that people aren't paying attention to and help out with technical assistance.

THE RECAST: Oftentimes nontraditional candidates have to be asked or encouraged to run. I think this is especially true of women candidates. Will your PAC recruit candidates as well?

BARNES: We’re looking at younger candidates, candidates of color, working-class candidates, women, LGBTQ candidates — and it doesn't even stop there.

Recruiting is certainly an option. Especially for people that may be on the fence that are thinking, “Oh, maybe I'm not ready yet” or “am I gonna have what it takes to win?”

We want to be there if that situation arises.

THE RECAST: Let me ask you about your Senate race. As you look back at things as a candidate you were able to achieve, why did your candidacy fall short?

BARNES: I'll tell you, Ron Johnson and his allies, billionaire donors — they spent unprecedented sums of money, there was a huge spending disparity and we still had the closest Senate race in 100 years despite being outspent by $26 million.

That's no small hurdle to overcome — not even The Long Run can overcome a $26 million deficit.

But we do want to be in a place to call attention in these races where that sort of spending disparity exists, and that's what makes me so excited. We built the largest grassroots coalition that's been seen in this state in quite some time — if ever — and it's important for us to keep that going.

THE RECAST: Going into your primary, you were the frontrunner. You even had most major candidates in that Senate primary drop out within days of each other ahead of the primary election.

But after the general, a lot of the postmortem that has been written about your candidacy was about your campaign’s inability to push back on the attacks that Sen. Johnson and his allies were making about you being soft on crime. That seemed to be the death knell of the campaign. Do you see it differently?

BARNES: No, I push back on that one.

You can pick whatever issue you want to pick to hammer your opponent on. But if you have this ungodly amount of money that's pushing that narrative, that's what the difference is. They could have said “Mandela doesn't like the Green Bay Packers” or something. If they put $26 million-plus behind that message — that’s what makes the difference.

THE RECAST: So it doesn't sound like you're putting much blame on the Democratic Party, though, for the loss.

BARNES: Look, I don’t do that. I’m not pointing fingers at anybody. At the end of the day, my name is on the ballot.

THE RECAST: Certainly this cycle a lot of eyes were on Georgia, trying to make sure that Sen. Raphael Warnock got across the finish line; Democrats were also trying to help Stacey Abrams in her gubernatorial campaign.

So with 2022 heavily tilted toward making sure Democrats in Georgia performed well, maybe there wasn’t enough money to be had by your campaign.

BARNES: We got a lot of support and I'm proud of the support that we got and more support could come from any number of places.

We were swimming upstream from the very beginning and we were going to have to fight for every inch. Unfortunately, we did come up a little bit short.

In many ways, that was probably tougher because you get 26,000 what-ifs, versus had I lost by, you know, double-digits or something, then it’s like, “Alright, maybe I shouldn’t have shown up in the first place.”

I'm proud of what we were able to do. And we're gonna continue to build off of the successes that we did have.

THE RECAST: About those “26,000 what ifs,” what do you take away from it? I feel like there are examples — and I’ll point to two recent ones, who are now in Congress, Reps. John James (R-Mich.) and Wesley Hunt (R-Texas) — they both lost previous elections but ran again and won. Do you see a comeback story for yourself?

BARNES: My takeaway is you’ve got to show up early. The thing is, in a competitive state like Wisconsin, you should never count any party out. You should never assume any races are decided before Election Day.

The takeaway for other people is that Wisconsin is a place that should be invested in early. It should be invested in often. And as far as running again, I turned 36 a couple months ago. The door is not closed.

THE RECAST: Before I let you go, I’ve got to ask you about this NBA trade deadline that just passed. All these blockbuster trades in the NBA right — bananas. Your Milwaukee Bucks just made a big splash getting Jae Crowder. 

What are your thoughts on all of this and what do you think about the Bucks chances of winning it all in this reshuffled NBA landscape?

BARNES: I certainly think the Bucks are always in it. But I tell you, man, it’s wild that Jae Crowder is coming back to Milwaukee. He played college ball at Marquette. You kind of look at this roster we’ve got and we’ve got a pretty deep bench. Look, Giannis Antetokounmpo is there, we’ve got Khris Middleton, with some real role players with Bobby Portis, now Crowder, we have Pat Connaughton, even Grayson Allen coming off the bench.

But it’s been a wild trade deadline. These last few hours I’ve been trying to get work done, but the group chat has been bananas.

I do think we’ve got a shot. The Phoenix Suns are going to be tough, they’re going to have a real shot this year, but I still think the Bucks have a chance — a real good chance.


Keeping the sports talk going, have a safe and fun Super Bowl weekend, which will be historic as the first time the big game features two starting Black quarterbacks. Now back to the political news before we serve up some weekend to-dos.  

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