Mandela Barnes is running as if he’s already got his party’s nomination sewn up. I’m not so sure that kind of cautious approach is going to win the day.
Last week the Wall Street Journal ran a lengthy story about the top Democrats looking to unseat Republican Sen. Ron Johnson. State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, Bucks executive Alex Lasry and Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson all consented to interviews with the Journal. Only Lt. Gov. Barnes ducked it, his staffing claiming that he was unavailable for an entire week.
I’m hearing that Barnes is taking a similar approach to other journalists, sometimes asking for questions in writing as opposed to live interviews. It’s not clear to me what Barnes is worried about. The guy is smart, quotable and quick on his feet. And, if he’s going to be his party’s nominee come August, he won’t be able to avoid the national and local press at that point, much less debates with Johnson. It would seem to make sense to use this time to sharpen up by taking on tough questions from reporters.
If Barnes has any skeletons they don’t appear to be in the closet. For example, he seemed to publicly embrace “defunding the police” soon after the murder of George Floyd, but now he says he does not support that. He issued a carefully worded statement on the topic to the Journal, but again no live interview. You can bet that Republicans will just ignore his more recent, balanced statements and hammer away at his early apparent support for defunding. He’s going to have to get used to defusing the attack and redirecting an attack back at Johnson. Written statements won’t suffice.
Along the same lines, Nelson is stepping up the pressure, demanding that Barnes and the other major candidates join him in debates. Barnes hasn’t responded so far, which leads one to believe he’s taking the standard tack for a front-runner: don’t make your opponents look like equals on the same stage or give them a chance to attack you in real time.
I get it. Barnes’ approach is standard issue, conventional political strategy. But I think he’d benefit from mixing it up with reporters and with his fellow Democratic candidates. Better to identify lines of attack and weaknesses now than against Ron Johnson in November.
I continue to feel that Nelson is the best bet simply because he can win in a red part of the state. But the truth is, come November, I’ll vote for anybody who gets the Democratic nomination. All I’m really going to care about when I vote in the August primary is who has the best chance to beat Johnson. If Barnes continues to duck the press and his Democratic opponents I’m going to worry about his ability to hold up to the onslaught come the fall.
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