Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes tells WisPolitics.com he stands out from his seven fellow Dem U.S. Senate candidates because of his experience holding statewide office and his travels to all parts of Wisconsin.

Barnes said he’s been to all of the state’s 72 counties and was “not just stopping at a gas station” in doing so.

Barnes, in an interview after his formal campaign announcement, said he has traveled the state talking to classrooms and small businesses on a host of issues important to people. He said that includes the cost of education and health care, racial justice and climate change.

He also said his campaign won’t be impacted by whether U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, decides to seek a third term.

“This race is about so much more than Ron Johnson,” Barnes said. “That’s another thing that I think is a difference in our race. I’m not going to be focused on the incumbent. People know who he is. He’s done a horrible job, hard stop. If we don’t talk about values, message, vision, then we’re going to lose — whoever the nominee is.”

Barnes said he plans to serve out his term as lieutenant governor while running for the Senate. Gov. Tony Evers, who once indicated he preferred Barnes run for reelection with him in 2022, issued a statement today calling Barnes “a good friend” who’s been “a great partner working to address challenges facing our state,” but didn’t issue an endorsement.

Barnes said the guv is focused on his reelection and seeking his backing hasn’t been on his mind.

Barnes has drawn criticism for saying he graduated from Alabama A&M University although he hadn’t been awarded a degree. He officially graduated in May 2020, 12 years after leaving the school and a couple of years after saying he had graduated. He was also knocked by Republicans for being overdue in paying his property taxes and unpaid parking tickets.

Barnes shrugged off those issues, saying Republicans “are going to try to do whatever they want to do to distract from their failures.”

But the Republican National Committee leaned in on the degree issue as well as a Politifact finding on a Barnes column that “a new kind of racist disenfranchisement” played out in the April 7, 2020 election, when there were only five polling places open in Milwaukee. Politifact found the reduction was largely due to a shortage of poll workers during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Whether it’s lying about when he received his college degree or misleading the public on in-person voting, Wisconsinites know Mandela Barnes is just another empty suit who will gladly step on their families as he attempts to climb the political ladder,” said RNC spokeswoman Preya Samsundar.

Barnes served two terms in the Assembly before challenging state Sen. Lena Taylor of Milwaukee in a 2016 Dem primary. After losing to Taylor while taking 39.3 percent of the vote in the heavily Dem district, Barnes went to work for a policy shop for progressive legislators. He then won the 2018 Dem primary for lieutenant governor with 67.9 percent of the vote over businessman Kurt Kober.

Barnes, in a speech in Milwaukee today, also said his campaign will work to channel Wisconsin’s legacy as the birthplace of the labor movement and progressivism.

He said he wants to create better jobs for Wisconsinites so they can do more than just pay their bills and get by. Barnes also said he wants to curb gun violence and make health care available for all. He added he wants to make sure families can support themselves while saving for retirement and the occasional vacation.

And he said that doesn’t just mean better jobs for Milwaukeeans.

“When we lift up families in Milwaukee, it helps farmers in western Wisconsin,” he said. “When we fight for the mill workers in the Fox Cities, the benefits are felt from Janesville all the way to Superior.”

The primary is in August 2022.

See Barnes’ rollout video.

Note: This story was updated July 20, 2021, at 5:05 p.m.

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