Wisconsin Senate race: Republicans attack Barnes on crime, look to change midterm message


Wisconsin Republicans have hammered Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes on crime in recent weeks, casting him as a “dangerous” Democratic candidate to take on GOP Sen. Ron Johnson as he seeks to reach the small group of suburban voters who might decide one of them. 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 broadening their focus beyond inflation concerns as gas prices drop and backlash against the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to end federal abortion rights reshapes the political landscape.

In August, Republican candidates and groups spent $25 million on inflation-focused TV ads and $11 million on crime-focused TV spots, according to data from the partisan firm AdImpact. In the first two weeks of September, however, that mix was changing: GOP campaigns and groups spent $9 million on inflation and another $9 million on crime.

The GOP effort to bring crime to the fore in the race — which has faced significant pushback from Democrats like Barnes — is playing out on the Senate battleground map.

In the Pennsylvania Senate race, the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, has come out with an ad attacking Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Fetterman for his support for prison reform, calling him a “dangerous liberal.” about crime.”

In Ohio, the Republican Senate candidate, venture capitalist JD Vance, ran a spot last week that said, “The streets are bursting with drugs and violence, while liberals enjoy it.” [Democratic opponent] Tim Ryan attacking our police and extorting money. Ryan, the congressman from Youngstown, responded with an ad that threw a collapsing football at a television screen that displayed the phrase “get rid of the police” while decrying the culture wars.

In Wisconsin, Barnes, in his ad two weeks ago, said Republicans are trying to scare away voters, calling it “a lie” that he wants to get rid of the police.

“I will 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 at the scene.

His comments echo those of President Joe Biden, who called for the hiring of 100,000 more community policing officers during an August speech in Pennsylvania. “As we hire more police officers, there should be more training, more support and more accountability,” Biden said in his remarks.

Republicans, however, believe that the attacks on Barnes are effective in large part because of the governor’s history and the GOP’s politically damaging positions on camera, on television, radio and in podcast interviews, which are now being used as advertisements. fodder

“It’s worse when he’s on video talking about police funding. It’s a fair tie,” said a Republican running for the Wisconsin Senate.

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 the funding should be redirected. from police budgets to other social services.

“We need to invest more in neighborhood services and programming for our residents, in front of our communities,” he said at the time. “Where will that money come from? Well, it can come from the overinflated budgets of police departments.’

In an ad released Monday that used audio from that conversation, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP campaign arm, called Barnes “dangerous” and a “Democratic cop-out.”

In other ads, Republicans have highlighted Barnes’ work a decade ago as an organizer for a Milwaukee-based social justice group to halve Wisconsin’s prison population to 11,000 inmates by 2015 and his support for ending bail. Barnes said his proposals to end cash bail would require judges to hold those accused of crimes in custody if there was clear evidence the defendant was dangerous.

In an effort to rebut the attacks, Barnes’ campaign on Thursday released an endorsement list of a group of nine current police officers and sheriff’s deputies.

“He wants to make sure we have the resources we need to do our job, to get to the root of the problem, to help stop crime before it has a chance to start,” retired Stevens Point, Wisconsin police sergeant Paul Piotrowski. , the Democrat said of Barnes in a campaign document announcing the endorsements.

The attacks on Barnes over the crime come as Republicans try to reach out to moderate suburban voters in early 2022 as they tilt heavily toward the GOP. Concerns about inflation and the Supreme Court’s Roe v. The decision to impeach Wade, however, has caused changes among voters in favor of Democrats, according to polls. And the abortion issue has emboldened segments of Democratic voters who party officials feared would be left out in the November caucuses.

Wisconsin Republicans pointed to crime as an issue that motivates the party’s base and moderate voters.

“Many people are concerned about their personal safety, not only in cities, but also in the suburbs around cities, because crime tends to spill out of the city and into the suburbs,” said Republican strategist Brian Schimming. Former State GOP Vice Chair. “Therefore, it is not a fundamental problem of the city. It’s on a much larger scale, the awareness of that.”

Wisconsin saw a 70% increase in homicides from 2019 to 2021 — a trend that followed a nationwide trend that experts say was driven by the coronavirus pandemic and economic factors.

Democrats, however, said Republicans see the attacks on Barnes as an effort to motivate the GOP’s core voters because of crime, rather than win over what Joe Zepecki, a Milwaukee Democratic strategist, described as “a real small group of swing voters.” who are in the last weeks of the race.

“This issue of crime and public safety is a core motivator for Republicans, so of course they’re going to continue to do that,” Zepecki said. “But I don’t think crime or public safety ultimately determines where those 150,000 to 200,000 swing voters end up and when they vote.”

Zepecki added, “I really do see these felony attacks on Barnes; they might work among Republicans, but I don’t see them being game-changers for that middle part of the electorate that will ultimately get to this.”

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 by about 23,000 votes. Johnson has won two Senate races, defeating Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold in 2010 and a rematch with Feingold in 2016, each time by about 100,000 votes.

A Marquette Law School poll released Wednesday showed Barnes and Johnson in a neck-and-neck race: 49 percent for Johnson and 48 percent for Barnes among likely voters. It was an improvement for Johnson, who trailed Barnes by 7 points in the same poll after Wisconsin’s Aug. 9 primary.

According to the poll, 70% of registered voters said they were very concerned about inflation, but crime ranked second, with 61% saying they were very concerned.

Both candidates have near-unanimous support from their parties’ voters, the poll shows. But the biggest swing was among independent voters, who favored Barnes by 15 points in August but Johnson by 2 points in September.

The poll showed that more registered voters viewed Johnson unfavorably (47%) than favorably (39%). Barnes’ numbers were better, with 33% saying they viewed him favorably compared to 22% who viewed him unfavorably. But 25 percent said they haven’t heard enough about Barnes, suggesting Johnson and Republicans have room to try to define him in the eyes of many voters.

Tom Otto, a 60-year-old retiree from Baraboo, north of Madison, is among those potential swing voters. He said he voted for Trump and Johnson in 2016, then the ticket of Gov. Tony Evers and Lt. Gov. Barnes in 2018 and Biden in 2020.

“I usually don’t make up my mind until I’m standing in line, ready to vote,” Otto said.

But while he said crime is a concern, inflation is on his mind now, he said.

“We have to do something about this, as far as I’m concerned, so that people don’t have enough money to buy food,” he said. “I mean, it’s a big deal in this country; I don’t think people realize how bad it is. You know, you come to the farmer’s market, it looks amazing, but how many people can afford it?