Republicans in Wisconsin have in recent weeks hammered Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes on crime, casting the Democratic nominee to take on GOP Sen. Ron Johnson as “dangerous” as they seek to reach the small swath of suburban voters who could decide one of the nation’s most competitive Senate races.
The ads – which feature comments Barnes has made in interviews in recent years – offer a window into the GOP’s shifting strategy less than two months before the midterm elections. Candidates and outside groups are expanding their focus beyond inflation concerns as gas prices drop and the backlash over the US Supreme Court’s decision to end federal abortion rights has reshaped the political landscape.
In August, Republican candidates and groups spent $25 million on television advertising focused on inflation and $11 million on TV spots about crime, according to data from the nonpartisan firm AdImpact. In the first two weeks of September, though, that mix was changing: GOP campaigns and groups spent $9 million on inflation and a matching $9 million on crime.
The GOP effort to elevate crime to the forefront of competitive races – which has faced strong pushback from Democrats like Barnes – is playing out across the Senate battleground map.
In Pennsylvania’s Senate race, the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, is up with an ad attacking Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee, over his support for prison reforms, calling him “dangerously liberal on crime.”
In Ohio, the Republican Senate nominee, venture capitalist J.D. Vance, aired a spot last week that said the “streets are exploding with drugs and violence, while liberals like [Democratic opponent] Tim Ryan attack and defund our police.” Ryan, a Youngstown-area congressman, responded with an ad that featured him throwing a football that smashes into a television screen displaying the phrase “defund the police” as he denounces culture wars.
In Wisconsin, Barnes, in his own ad launched two weeks ago, said Republicans are trying to scare voters, calling the charge that he wants to defund the police “a lie.”
“I’ll make sure our police have the resources and training they need to keep our communities safe and that our communities have the resources to stop crime before it happens,” Barnes says in the spot.
His comments echo President Joe Biden, who in an August speech in Pennsylvania called for the hiring of 100,000 more officers for community policing. “As we hire more police officers, there should be more training, more help, and more accountability,” Biden said in his remarks.
Republicans, however, say they believe the attacks on Barnes are effective in large part because of the lieutenant governor’s history of taking what the GOP sees as politically damaging positions on camera, in television, radio and podcast interviews, that are now being mined as ad fodder.
“It’s worse when he’s actually on video talking about defunding the police. It’s a direct tie,” a Republican involved in the Wisconsin Senate race said.
The attacks so far have focused on Barnes’ efforts as a state lawmaker to end cash bail, as well as a 2020 interview with PBS Wisconsin – weeks after the police killing of George Floyd in neighboring Minnesota – in which Barnes suggested that funding should be redirected from police budgets to other social services.
“We need to invest more in neighborhood services and programming for our residents, for our communities on the front end,” he said then. “Where will that money come from? Well, it can come from over-bloated budgets in police departments.”
He did, however, also stress in that same interview that he did not want police budgets completely done away with, saying, “The more money we invest in opportunity for people, the less money we have to spend on prisons.”
In an ad launched Monday that used audio from that interview, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP campaign arm, labeled Barnes “dangerous” and a “defund the police Democrat.”
In other ads, Republicans have highlighted Barnes’ work a decade ago as an organizer for a Milwaukee-based social justice group to cut Wisconsin’s prison population in half, to 11,000 inmates by 2015, and his advocacy for ending cash bail. Barnes has said his proposals to end cash bail would have required judges to hold those charged with crimes in custody if there was clear evidence the defendant was dangerous.
Aiming to rebut the attacks, Barnes’ campaign on Thursday rolled out a list of endorsements from a group of nine current and former police officers and sheriff’s deputies.
“He wants to ensure we have the resources we need to do our job while also going to the root of the issue, to help stop crime before it has a chance to start,” Paul Piotrowski, a retired police sergeant in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, said of Barnes in a statement from the Democrat’s campaign announcing the endorsements.
Reaching suburban voters
The attacks on Barnes over crime come as Republicans attempt to reach the moderate, suburban voters who in early 2022 appeared to be tilting strongly in the GOP’s favor. Declining concerns about inflation and the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, though, have led to shifts among those voters in Democrats’ favor, polls have shown. And the issue of abortion has animated parts of the Democratic electorate that party officials had feared would sit out November’s midterms.
Republicans in Wisconsin pointed to crime as an issue that motivates both the party’s base and moderate voters.
“There’s a lot of people concerned about their personal safety – not just in the cities, but in the suburbs around the cities – because crime tends to radiate out of the city into the suburbs and exurbs,” said Brian Schimming, a Republican strategist and former vice chairman of the state GOP. “So it’s not just a core city problem. It’s on a much larger scale, the awareness of it.”
Wisconsin saw a 70% increase in murders from 2019 to 2021 – a trend that occurred across the nation and that experts say was driven by the coronavirus pandemic and economic factors.
Democrats, however, said they see Republicans’ attacks on Barnes over crime as an effort to motivate the GOP’s base voters, rather than win over what Joe Zepecki, a Democratic strategist in Milwaukee, described as the “vanishingly small group of truly swing voters” that exist in the race’s final weeks.
“This crime and public safety issue is a base motivator for Republicans, so of course, they’re going to keep going into that,” Zepecki said. “But I don’t think crime or public safety is going to be the issue that ultimately determines where those 150,000 to 200,000 swing voters land when they walk in and cast a ballot.”
Zepecki added: “I do really view these crime attacks on Barnes – they may work among Republicans, but I don’t see them being a game changer to that middle part of the electorate to whom this is ultimately going to come down to.”
Longtime swing state
Wisconsin has a history of statewide elections decided by narrow margins in recent years. Biden won the state in 2020 by about 20,000 votes, four years after former President Donald Trump won there by about 23,000 votes. Johnson has won his two Senate races, defeating incumbent Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold in 2010 and winning a rematch with Feingold in 2016, by about 100,000 votes each time.
A Marquette Law School poll released Wednesday showed Barnes and Johnson in a neck-and-neck race – 49% for Johnson versus 48% for Barnes among likely voters. It was an improvement for Johnson, who had trailed Barnes by 7 points in the same poll immediately after Wisconsin’s August 9 primary.
The poll found that 70% of registered voters said they were very concerned about inflation – but crime ranked second, with 61% saying they were very concerned about it.
Both candidates have near-unanimous support from their own parties’ voters, the poll found. But the biggest swing was among likely independent voters, who backed Barnes by 15 points in August but favored Johnson by 2 points in September.
More registered voters viewed Johnson unfavorably (47%) than favorably (39%), the poll showed. Barnes’ numbers were better, with 33% saying they saw him favorably compared with 22% who saw him unfavorably. But 25% said they have not heard enough about Barnes, suggesting that Johnson and Republicans still have room to attempt to define him in the eyes of many voters.
Tom Otto, a 60-year-old retiree in Baraboo, north of Madison, is among those potential swing voters. He said he voted for Trump and Johnson in 2016, and then the Democratic ticket of Gov. Tony Evers and lieutenant governor Barnes in 2018 and Biden in 2020.
“I usually don’t make my decision until I’m standing in line, getting ready to vote,” Otto said.
But while he said crime is a concern, inflation is at the front of his mind now, he said.
“We have to do something with this, as far as I’m concerned, with people not having enough money to even buy food,” he said. “I mean, it’s a big deal in this country – people, I don’t think realize how bad it is. You know, you come to the farmers market, looks wonderful, but how many people can afford it?”